Tried In The Furnace of Affliction
A pandemic, bible camps, and the danger of “faith over fear”.
In living through the pandemic-ridden months of 2020, I’ve gotten used to seeing masks in the pictures populating my social media feed. The more noble exceptions to the trend are usually adventurous friends of mine hiking or biking through remote regions of the country, while the moronic cases take the form of college kids drunkenly parading through bars or frat parties. However, a faithful new cohort has joined the latter in its dullardism. No American cultural phenomenon bucks general wisdom like the patinated practice of evangelical bible camps.
My attention was recently drawn to the matter by some dubious Instagram photos of cheery camp-goers from my south-Georgian hometown clothed in matching “JESUS IS LIFE” t-shirts, posed with their cheeks pressed together as masses of their maskless peers roamed the background. Several other posts depicted similarly-clothed revelers huddled in the colorful, dusty aftermath of what looked like a Holi festival. I wondered what bumbling church had organized such an ill-advised festival in the middle of a pandemic.
The photos’ mushy captions and hashtags attributed themselves to a Valdosta, Georgia non-denominational group called The Porch Community Church, which had hosted a Disciple Now (DNOW) retreat weekend in mid-August. If you haven’t heard of them, DNOWs are the fancy microwave dinners of the Christian retreat world: prepackaged sets of media kits, bible study lessons, sermon outlines, and themed devotionals that can be reheated and served hot by any Christian outfit willing to pay to streamline its planning process.
At the helm of this particular weekend was a Kelvin Gemstone-esque youth pastor that I recognized as the same bloke who routinely conducted subtle proselytics in my public high school lunchroom (I once sat dumbfounded at a lunch table as a student asked him how he knew heaven was real, to which he responded “you just know” in his southern drawl).
The pastor’s Facebook page documented the DNOW venture in full. Despite recordings promising that the Porch would do “everything we can” for the safety of those in its charge, including outdoor worship activities, required masks, and a religious (forgive me, I had to) observance of social distancing measures, his timeline boasts high-resolution video from the weekend that refutes nearly all of these assertions. It displays kids clustered together in tight groups, wearing their masks around their foreheads like bandanas. Shots from the faux-Holi (referred to as the “Color War”) were riddled with maskless kids hurling fine, colored powders at each other at close range. Others showed swimsuit-clad campers bounding onto a massive water slide in quick succession.
A DNOW schedule available on Facebook directed campers to report back and forth from their homes during the weekend, painting an unnerving picture wherein campers cluster in an environment tailored for the spread of Covid-19 and then carry the bug to their families, who likely do not enjoy the security of youth and good health.
In fact, in Valdosta and the surrounding Lowndes County, fifteen percent of Georgian high schoolers are obese, and an equal fraction are overweight. Of adults in Lowndes County, thirty percent are obese, and thirteen percent are over the age of sixty five. For Georgian adults, ten percent have diabetes, and their rate of heart disease is five percent higher than the national average. Each of these conditions are proven risk aggravators for Covid-19.
These statistics are a terrifying prospect in a county classified by the White House as a Covid-19 “red zone”, and the Porch’s DNOW retreat weekend only throws more sparks into the tinderbox. It’s not unrealistic to predict that any cases of Covid-19 vectored by the DNOW retreat will ripple through Lowndes County and the city of Valdosta, casting a chilling irony on the “JESUS IS LIFE” T-shirts. The Porch is only a single case of a much larger and more disturbing trend where evangelical circles justify dangerous and idiotic behavior in the face of the pandemic using the force-field of faith.
This recoil from common sense and rationality parades under the battle cry of “faith over fear”. Other evangelical camps in Missouri, Texas, Michigan and Oregon that have suffered predictable Covid-19 outbreaks lately no doubt subscribe to that proclamation which tends to mean “faith over reason” in practice. One can’t help but notice the stubborn invincibility woven into those words.
They remind me of a pastor Gerald Glenn, bishop of the New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Virginia, who preached “I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus” from his pulpit until Covid-19 dragged him into the grave in April of this year. The declaration emanates in various forms from every state in the union.
And yet, for every local news report of a pastor or worshiper who credits his or her “miraculous” recovery to the lord’s favor, a multitude of parishoners perish. The Church of God in Christ, the nation’s largest black pentecostal church, has lost more than a dozen of its senior clergy to the virus, and rural houses of worship throughout the southern U.S. have been ravaged too, as pastors wearily commit their congregations to church cemeteries. One wonders how many of the 190,000 Americans who have died in the pandemic (figure from the time of this writing) were devoted believers convinced they would be spared that awful fate.
In the face of such needless suffering, “faith over fear” must be vigorously questioned and refuted. How long will faith be permitted to bypass scientific consensus in the face of danger? How many more casualties from the resultant community spread, both in evangelical ranks and their secondhand contacts, must be tallied for faith to forfeit legitimacy as a means of protection in a pandemic?
The burden rests on citizens of sensible religiosity and rational secularism to jointly apply pressure on the ridiculous dogma that preaches faith over reason to disastrous consequence, and to freely and vocally castigate venues like bible camps and evangelical retreats that elect to practice such idiotic teachings to the detriment of society and common effort.