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Pastors Pushback: Freeport minister calls on clergy to be prepared for jail

NASSAU, BAHAMAS — Reverend Keith Alton Russell of First Baptist Church has labeled the government’s restrictions on the resumption of church services “immoral and ungodly” and suggested some church leaders must be prepared to go to jail to show the government the church “can’t be played with”. In a statement widely circulated on social media, Russell said: “Are we going to sit by and allow this God-king to continue in his devilish delusion.” We can’t allow the new protocols for the church — and there will be new protocols — to be set by the incompetent authority,” he wrote. “That would be anathema. Some of us who are courageous enough may have to get up from behind our comfortable desks and go to jail this time, for the cause of Christ. “For some time now, based on my uncelebrated observation, this lockdown is no longer about containment of COVID-19. “What the incompetent authority is now doing to the church of Jesus Christ is immoral and ungodly. “And it is time for those of us who [praise] the name of Christ to say: It is enough.” Services were allowed to resume with restrictions on islands cleared to resume full commercial activity on Saturday. On those islands, services may be held in the sanctuary though social distancing and hygiene protocols must be maintained. These include Abaco, Andros, Long Island, Cat Island, Mayaguana, Inagua, Crooked Island, Acklins, Long Cay, Ragged Island and Rum Cay. While communion is permitted on these islands — though it must be held in disposable cups and distributors must wear gloves and a mask — the practice remains prohibited elsewhere. “When you give an inch, they take a mile,” Russell wrote. “Now the competent authority is telling us how we can have worship; when we can have worship; how long we can have worship; who can attend worship and what ordinances of the church we can’t have.” He was referring to communion. “Can you believe that he actually told us that? “Can you believe that he actually sat somewhere and wrote that? “Are we going to sit by and allow this God-king to continue in his devilish delusion, believing that he can command that? On islands, which remain in ‘Phase 1B’, including New Providence and Grand Bahama services may only be held as drive-up service where attendees remain seated in their vehicles; services is limited to one hour; and only four people from the immediate household can be in one vehicle. High-risk people and those aged 65 and older have been asked not to attend. Notwithstanding inclement weather, scores of parishioners drove into the parking lots of Pilgrim Baptist Church on Kemp Road and Believers Faith Outreach Ministries on Carmichael Road to attend service. When contacted yesterday, Bahamas Christian Council President Bishop Delton Fernander said while granting churches the option to offer drive-in services is a good first step toward its reopening, he believes the church can operate similarly to sessions of Parliament, during which politicians wear masks and socially distance in the House of Assembly on Bay Street. Asked about Russell’s sentiment, Fernander acknowledged there were concerns and strong mixed views, but he said the church and the government was working on the matter. However, Fernander said: “We did not expect that from the state. I think what happened there was a belief that we would not have a comprehensive strategy, and so I will meet with the health team to show them our comprehensive strategy, so there is no misunderstanding.” In a separate statement, Reverend Christopher Roberts said it appears the government has overstepped its authority. He also questioned why certain sectors of the economy were allowed to open, including liquor stores, but not the church. “There are biblical traditions that are standard and practiced by most denominations, that are not subject and can never be subject to governmental dictates,” Roberts wrote on his Facebook page. “The competent authority is out of order and has overstepped its boundaries and must be called on it. No pastor [or] preacher, regardless of their political or religious affiliations, should be silent in the face of this direct onslaught and insult to the Christian church. I can say it no better way than to say grow some balls and let your voice be heard.” Enough Meanwhile, Russell said after complying and closing his church since late March to protect his congregation and the wider community of Grand Bahama, he has had enough. He pointed out that the curve of new cases on the island has flattened. There remain no active cases of the virus at last report, though there were previously eight confirmed cases. “Still, the church is on lockdown,” said Russell in a statement, which made the round on social media. “Hardware stores, automotive stores, department stores, gas stations, selected eateries — now even liquor stores are opened — [but] still, the church is lockdown. “The boarders have been breached with impunity; still the church is on lockdown. “There are islands in this archipelago that have not had a single COVID-19 case in this entire period; still the churches are lockdown.” Russell said Fernander drafted and submitted a cogent proposal, which employs best-practices and cutting edge tools to allow churches to reopen in a safe manner. He also suggested the restrictions on churches are prejudicial against the poor, noting people without vehicles and churches without parking lots will be disadvantaged. He said he contacted Fernander and suggested authorizing all churches to open their doors using the safety protocols, despite the emergency orders prohibiting full resumption of worship. Russell said he told Fernander the threat of the virus did not appear to be the reason for “our imprisonment and that the competent authority couldn’t lock up the entire church membership of the nation”. However, the Freeport resident said Fernander advised him the church could not break the law. But Russell said this was a missed opportunity to show the government the church “can’t be played with”. Russell said while some church leaders may be satisfied with approach and phased resumption of services, namely the drive-in service, he called it nonsense. “In one stroke of the God-king’s pen, persons who have no vehicles can’t attend church; nor can they catch a ride with a friend or ride the church’s bus.” He called this an assault on the poor and churches that have no parking lots. He contended the church was giving up its authority, but said he would leave it to the legal minds to wrestle with whether there was an infringement upon the separation of church and state. He said he repents for allowing the competent authority to convince him to keep the doors of the church closed on Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. “I repent with bitter tears,” he said. “I knew better, but I went with the crowd. I kowtowed. I locked myself away like the disciples after the crucifixion, convincing myself that I was being responsible, law abiding. “What I should have been is faithful. I should have challenged the unholy edict; instead I bowed when the ungodly music sounded. I may have to spend a couple of days in hell for that, but I will not be alone. In fact, there must be special furnaces in hell for us Pastors who know what is right and don’t do it.”

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