This Easter, churches across the country will be closed on the holiest of Christian holidays to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
But at Greater Exodus Baptist Church on North Broad Street, services will go on as usual.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Even as many churches, mosques, and synagogues statewide and beyond have closed in compliance with stay-at-home orders, Greater Exodus has not only kept its doors open but also will welcome people into its sanctuary for Easter services.
“I’m not doing anything to defy our governor or our mayor. I’m very respectful as to what they’re trying to do, and I understand it and I partner with them,” said the Rev. Herb H. Lusk II, the church’s pastor. “At the same time, closing the doors of the church is not an option for me.”
Lusk, a former Eagles running back and team chaplain, says that only about 50 worshippers are at each service these days and that he has made considerable adjustments in light of public health concerns.
The church is being deep-cleaned weekly. Sermons are shorter. Elderly churchgoers or those with preexisting conditions have been asked to stay home. Church leaders offer drive-through communion in the parking lot. Congregants who attend are required to sit no more than three to a pew.
“I’m just an old country preacher. My father was a preacher, and my background is in preaching in church, and I’ve never, ever closed my church,” Lusk told me. “During snowstorms when churches have been closed, I spend the night at my church, and I get up in the morning on Sundays and I open the doors of the church just in case somebody passes by.”
I admire his commitment, although he should stop allowing worshippers inside until this public health crisis is over. But I get it.
During times of uncertainty, we need the church and religion more than ever. They give us something to hold on to. They remind us to hope. They remind us to be compassionate. It’s a lot to expect us to sacrifice attending church services during Holy Week and on Easter, of all religious holidays.
But social distancing is one of the only tools we have to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus, which is spread through respiratory droplets released when an infected person coughs or sneezes. That’s why the White House is advising us to avoid public gatherings of more than 10.
I have always had a lot of respect for Lusk, whom I met years ago through his wife. He has dedicated nearly his entire life to service and to God. We differ politically, but that has never blinded me to his selflessness. And although my eyebrows were up, I believed him when he told me, “I’m being as safe as I can without closing the church.”
“Sometimes I will. Sometimes I won’t," Lusk told me. "I’m kind of like our president. I’m not going to do the mask very much.… I have to talk. I have to speak. Not in harm’s way. People need to hear the voice of their pastor.”
We talked about how quarantining can be particularly hard on those who live alone or who lack technological resources.
“There are just some people who need to see you. I’m just not for a complete closedown of everything, particularly the church,” he added. “In my mind, if Walmart is open and if CVS is open because they are critical, the church is just as critical for people. As long as you can keep them safe, I think it’s OK to be open.”
He and I will just have to disagree on that.