Holy Week is just days away, but the coronavirus pandemic is forcing those of faith to rethink the way they worship this year. It has also prompted the Rev. Al Sharpton to issue a strong warning to members of the clergy: cancel in-person services. 

The New York City-based civil rights leader initiated a call this week with the heads of the nation’s largest historically Black religious denominations and other faith leaders to disseminate that message. It comes on the heels of the arrests of two Christian pastors who defied warnings from the Center for Disease Control, state officials, and local authorities to cancel all large gatherings and stay at home.

“This is an urgent call to all denominational leaders to refrain from convening church services in person because it is reckless and disgraceful to endanger the lives of congregants,” Sharpton told ESSENCE via email. “We are just days away from Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday and these pastors, who willfully ignore the gravity of this pandemic and the seriousness of social distancing, are not doing God’s work by risking the lives of innocent people.” 

Over the last month, an increasing number of cities and states have moved toward cracking down on large-scale gatherings because of the health implications they can have. Yet church leaders who claim the precautions taken for the virus are “politically motivated” have ignored the dangers that in-person worship can pose to their congregation. 

Emanuel Baptist Church in South Carolina. For people of faith, Holy Week is a sacred remembrance of Christ's life and an important date on the Christian calendar. This year Rev. Al Sharpton is encouraging those of faith to reconsider how they observe the events in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For people of faith, Holy Week is a sacred remembrance of Christ’s life and an important date on the Christian calendar. This year Rev. Al Sharpton is encouraging those of faith to reconsider how they observe the events in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

“To be a leader of faith requires selflessness and compassion, not recklessness and shameless irresponsibility, like what we witnessed in Florida and Louisiana,” Sharpton says. “At this unprecedented time, we have various online options to convene and we must put the health of the public above anything else.”

Sharpton says he’s been arrested over thirty times for civil rights and civil disobedience, but the incidents in Louisiana and Florida involving leaders of faith is not a matter of civil or human rights, nor a statement of faith. Instead, the founder of the National Action Networks says, “It is self-aggrandizing, reckless behavior of those Shepherds who would risk their sheep rather than lead their sheep.”

The reverend shared that a series of calls will continue to be conducted to discourage the growing number of churches who are adamant about holding Palm Sunday and Holy Week services in person.

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