SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (AP) — A small-town church in Texas continues to hold in-person services despite warnings from health experts who say large gatherings pose a great danger to the spreading the new coronavirus.
More than 40 people on Sunday attended the sermon at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs. Parishioners say their willingness to attend the service stems from surviving a 2017 mass shooting in their own church that left 26 people dead and 20 wounded.
“If all these bullets weren’t going to stop me, a virus isn’t going to stop me,” said Gunny Macias, who was shot five times during the shooting. “If God wanted me, he would’ve taken me then.”
Gov. Greg Abbott’s stay-at-home exempted religious services because they’re deemed essential, the San Antonio Express-News reported Monday.
Abbott encouraged churches to hold remote services when possible, adding that parishioners in church must be 6 feet apart.
Pastor Frank Pomeroy, who lost his 14-year-old daughter in the shooting, opened Sunday’s service with a prayer expressing gratitude for congregating.
“Lord God … Thank you for this opportunity to gather in your house and be able to openly proclaim your righteousness in a world today that is afraid and panicked,” Pomeroy said.
Sutherland Springs is in Wilson County, a rural area southeast of San Antonio that has six confirmed cases of coronavirus, the newspaper reported.
In Texas, 7,319 people tested positive for the virus as of Monday, while 140 have died.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause death or severe illness, including pneumonia.
While First Baptist livestreams its services, leaders don’t think that’s a substitute for in-person worship.
John Holcombe lost three children, his pregnant wife, his parents and other relatives in the 2017 shooting.
“From the perspective of someone who has been shot at, I can tell you when it’s your time, it’s your time,” Holcombe said. “Whether by coronavirus or by flu or by getting shot. Or by anything else.”
Meanwhile, Sallie Watson, General Presbyter of Mission Presbytery, which oversees 130 churches in South Texas, has signed a letter requesting that Abbott require churches to hold services remotely.
“I know it’s hard, and I know it’s difficult, but we’ve got to find other ways to connect in a time like this that would not be potentially lethal,” Watson said.