The Rev. Herbert Lusk had only had an hour of sleep. Lusk is the pastor of Greater Exodus Baptist Church who attracted a maelstrom of attention and backlash last week after his plans for in-person Easter services at his North Philadelphia church went public.
But around 5 a.m. Sunday, the preacher announced on his Facebook page that he had a change of heart.
“I have decided that we will only have a livestreamed Easter Service 7:45 a.m., 9:30 a.m., and 11:30 a.m. today Sunday, due to the continued rise in COVID-19 cases in Philadelphia,” Lusk began his Facebook post. “Updated information expecting a surge of cases in the region next week and last night seeing inside pictures of the Liacouras Center right down the street from my church being converted to a hospital, led to a final decision to go all virtual to eliminate all risk or exposure. Particularly alarming, is the reported rise of cases in the African American community.”
He said this turnaround followed a series of conversations Saturday: a phone interview with an Inquirer reporter and calls from City Council President Darrell Clarke, First Deputy Managing Director Tumar Alexander, and Health Commissioner Thomas Farley.
Lusk had previously told The Inquirer that his plan to have three Easter services, each limited to a maximum of 50 worshipers practicing social distancing, had “exceeded” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention coronavirus guidelines and was going "over and above the call of duty.” He said he learned Saturday that his grasp of the public health recommendations was outdated.
The CDC recommends that organizations serving high-risk communities cancel all gatherings of more than 10 people. White House guidelines discourage gatherings exceeding any 10 people, regardless of their risk level. Philadelphia’s stay-at-home order bans all public gatherings.
Previously, Lusk had insisted that people who would attend Greater Exodus on Resurrection Sunday were not seniors or people with preexisting conditions, but rather worshipers who lacked digital access to services that his church was already livestreaming. Lusk said he had received threats over that decision. But, he also received messages from people who thoughtfully and respectfully disagreed with him. That helped him see things differently.
Clarke called around 9:30 p.m. on Holy Saturday, Lusk recalled. He remembers Clarke telling him: “'Whatever you do, I’d like you to do it differently tomorrow. But you don’t lose my friendship either way. Just pray whatever God says to you.'”
Lusk chuckled softly at the memory. “That about broke me down,” the preacher admitted.
After that, Alexander let him know that his plan wasn’t the best idea and would conflict with the charitable deeds that Lusk has done. Still, Lusk wasn’t convinced. So Alexander, according to Lusk, arranged a three-way call with Farley. The health commissioner presented a series of hypotheticals. What if someone infected with the virus breaks protocol and shows up? What if the services lead to families dying, like reports of groups of relatives all dying of the disease?
“The way he played that thing out,” Lusk said, “even though at that point I was still somewhat rebellious, it was, it was clear to me that I had to cancel this thing.”
The pastor, a former Eagles running back who serves as a team chaplain now, says he’s still thinking through how people can gather for church safely. But this Easter, Lusk limited the sanctuary to 10 people as the service was livestreamed.
Before, he saw closing Easter service to the public as impossible.
“Not being able to gather securely on the most important day of the year, yeah, it was difficult,” he said. “But you know, it's doable.”
The services to come at Greater Exodus will be an adjustment, but he feels good after changing his policy.
“I got the counsel of many people, many good people,” Lusk said Sunday. “And I’m just very fortunate, very blessed.”