EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article was submitted for publication just prior to Governor Newsom announcement this week of the closure of “worship services” due to a spike in COVID-19 cases in the region and across the state.
‘Even in the middle of this tumultuous year, good is there.
Good things happen, but we don’t hear about them because
everything is focused on when will COVID be over.’
Dr. Joel Dorman,
First Baptist Church, Merced
Dr. Joel Dorman, who has been the lead pastor of First Baptist Church at 500 Buena Vista Drive in Merced since August 1, 2017, shared with the Times about how the church has been doing throughout the pandemic, and how it is following state and local guidelines.
In the interests of giving readers a change from thinking about what is on everyone’s mind nonstop, COVID-19, the pastor, who has a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education, a Master of Divinity (Biblical Studies), and a Doctor of Ministry, wanted to share “a non-COVID feel-good story”.
He told the Times, “A lady started coming to our church a year or two ago when she was leaving an abusive relationship. We walked her through it, and she started to get involved in her faith. She was on a job search, and she hadn’t been able to get her driver’s license. Some of the ladies taught her how to drive and she got her license, but the job she got was farther than she could walk and she didn’t own a car. People got together, and they got her a car. I got to be part of it. I got to bless her car, and I saw a sweet lady with a new lease on life with her eyes welling up with tears of gratitude. In the middle of a heavily politicized election year and the COVID pandemic, she had a job and a car, and just to see her face gave me joy. Even in the middle of this tumultuous year, good is there. Good things happen, but we don’t hear about them because everything is focused on when will COVID be over.”
‘Further adding to our disappointment was the hypocritical aspect that I could go to a protest and chant, but when I walked into church Sunday morning, I could chant or sing nothing.’
Reaction to ‘no singing’ directive
“The directive against singing is very disappointing,” Dorman said.
“That was concerning and frustrating but we will survive this too. We’re not rebellious.
“Further adding to our disappointment was the hypocritical aspect that I could go to a protest and chant, but when I walked into church Sunday morning, I could chant or sing nothing.
“Scripture is clear that we are to submit to authority that is over us. We do everything in our church’s power to comply with guidelines, so we want to respect the governor, and we certainly respect the unimaginable pressure he is under in terms of governing a State.
“I do hope the governor will reconsider this, especially in cases where people are physically distant.
“That’s not where we want to make a stand, but we feel that singing is part of our duty to the Lord. Scripture commands people to sing. I’m not going to shake my finger at people who do sing at church.
“I have some colleagues who stood up in front of other congregations and explained the guideline. How would you enforce that? In our congregation, I’m closer to being a spiritual big brother. I would not stand before them and say, ‘Do not sing to the God of our salvation.’
“The church is not regulatory. The church is supposed to be hope for our community.
“We wish for consistency of policies. We want to give people hope and strength to get through this and part of this will be musical.
“We need to support the First Amendment. Protesting is guaranteed to people. I attended protests during the day that were more focused on prayer and coming together as a community and at the same time, I believe the church is part of the answer to the problem of the culture and muzzling us won’t get to that answer.
“On Sunday, we had the band on stage. They’re physically a long way from each other, so in that sense, it wasn’t that abnormal for us. In the time we would have done two other songs, we had a prayer time for our church and our church leadership instead.
“We prayed about how we stay in the spirit of generosity and minister, and then we had a specific prayer time for our leaders. Scripture is quite clear that we are to bless those in authority over us. It ended up being a very powerful and special service and was a pleasant surprise. I’m still glowing from that day, Sunday, July 5, both services.
“I think we have a great church. I have been here three years. There are great people and a great spirit of wanting to serve and wanting to love our city.
“The staff team was talking this morning. We hope we will be able to do our Go Day in September where we do service projects in town.”
Journey through pandemic
Describing the church’s journey through the pandemic, Dr. Dorman told the Times, “Back in March, when everything went into shelter-in-place and shut down, we were shifting to doing everything completely online, although we had been doing online streaming for years.
“We would record the service on a Thursday evening and stream it live on Sunday. We did that until we went back to in-person gatherings.
“In early May, we felt that the shut-down was going to lift soon, so we started making in-house service plans. When our staff team was out in the community, they would come back and compare experiences to find out how was social distancing looking in businesses. We knew it would be a transition.
“The governor came out with his reopening guidelines, and we were ready to go to in-person services on May 31. I was really proud of our team because we were ready.
“We continued doing the online version of the service as well because older people were more comfortable with it. Some of them wanted to wait until the vaccine to return to in-person attendance.
“The people’s responses were like the three lights on a traffic signal. There was the red light group, who stopped going in person to church; the yellow light people, who were cautious but began coming to church; and the green light folks who wouldn’t have shut down at all.
“We are ministering to all three groups — we have to respect them all. We have to have Jesus-driven love for each other and realize we are going to fall on different sides of issues that are very intense at times.
“We had a whole building where we were simulcasting. Everybody in that building would wear masks, and that was for the red light folks. Mostly it sits empty, but we like it because it’s a reasonable place for people to start out attending church again.There are only 20 seats because that’s the 25 percent.
“In our big room, we seat 600.
“We also have overflow rooms available.
“Our heart has always been to minister to our community, be a source of hope and comfort and inspiration even, and I hope that when people see us, they know we’re going to get through this. I feel like a church can be a constant in a community. We’re going to keep serving our city.
“There were people that would call up and say, ‘I’m not a member of your church, but I need groceries.’
“We developed a volunteer program, and we had many college-age into low 30s people that would volunteer like crazy, going all over town and buying groceries and walking them to people’s porches.
“We still do it, but the requests are a lot less. We are now feeling the economic fall out. We have more requests for help with MID bills and PG&E bills. “Sometimes, it is people who have not had to ask for help before. It could be people with jobs who got laid off. We tell them, ‘You don’t have to be embarrassed.’
“We are still meeting in person, two Sunday services, various overflows, and a Hispanic congregation and Mien congregation meeting in person.
“We bought cleaning supplies and specialized sanitation equipment, and we clean everything between services and limit restrooms.
“We don’t serve food. We opted not to because we want people to fellowship but not hang out in the lobby. We have gotten good at moving people out into the parking lot after we dismiss them. People have been very cooperative and flexible.
“I can’t compliment my team enough. They keep people safe. People are scared, some more than others.
I said to them, ‘I know it takes a lot of courage to come out, and your faith is inspiring.’
“I’m a green light guy and it doesn’t take a lot of courage for me to come out, but some people are scared and they want to sit down and if they don’t want to walk closer than 20 feet to anyone, they still get to be there and feel the presence of other people.
“We are usually a huggy group, but we settle on waving and virtual hugs because we have so many folks at so many levels of that traffic signal and we want people to come in and not feel pressured to act in a certain way.
“Scripture says the world will know us by our love. We reopened in a respectful way for each other.
“We have Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and a few groups like that that meet here, and when the next to last set of directives came out, they wanted to start meeting again. I was able to send an e mail, and our city and county Health Department were so helpful. Stephanie Dietz, assistant city anager at the city, and others answered questions from myself and other faith leaders. We were able to get the state directives interpreted.
“We are for our city, for our county and for our state. We’re not against anything.
We’re not going to blink our eyes and everything goes back to normal, so we have to work together and keep moving.”