Multiple Churches Defy State Orders; Parishioner Tests Positive

Sign from a Redding protest rally. Photo by Steve DuBois

If COVID-19 has its way, Mother’s Day 2020 may be remembered in the north state as the day when scores of people were exposed to the deadly virus after they bucked state bans against mass gatherings.

It’s the Wild West in this blood-red region of Northern California when it comes to its citizenry obeying the governor’s executive orders related to public health and safety during the pandemic. More and more, executive orders are seen as optional, and thus proudly ignored without fear of consequence.

I’m not talking about the controversial high-profile Mother’s Day Cottonwood Rodeo, attended by 2000 people. I’m talking about an unknown number of churches that opened their doors to in-person services attended by anywhere between dozens to hundreds of congregants per church on Mother’s Day.

PBFC (Palermo Bible Family Church) Ministries in Palermo, located in Butte County, was one such church that defied the governor’s order on May 10. There, more than 180 men, women and children gathered on Mother’s Day for worship, fellowship and song. It was a popular service after having been unable to gather for so long. Members were shoulder to shoulder. According to photos taken during the Mother’s Day service (that no longer appear on the church Facebook page) masks and social distancing were not observed.

Pre-pandemic photo from PBFC Ministries Facebook page shows a typical Sunday.

By the next day, one PBFC parishoner who’d attended the church’s Mother’s Day service had fallen ill and was tested for COVID-19. The test result was positive.

Previous PBFC Ministries Facebook photos that had been posted to document the crush of jubilant Mother’s Day parishioners crowded into the PBFC church no longer exist on the PBFC Facebook page. Likewise, the video of the Mother’s Day sermon has also been scrubbed from the church website and Facebook page. 

However, as of Friday night, the PBFC’s website calendar still showed May filled with in-person church services, including the special May 10 Mother’s Day sermon.

But even more crucial was a Facebook post from PBFC Pastor Mike Jacobsen about the circumstances relating to the infected parishioner.

I want to inform everyone that as Pastor of PBFC, I made a decision to have church on Mother’s Day with our congregation celebrating moms, one of our attendees who had no symptoms that day. Woke up the next morning needing medical attention on Monday the 11th was given the test for Covid 19 and found to be positive on Wednesday the 13th. We have been working with Butte County Public Health and dismissed church services until further notice. I would never with knowledge put anyone in harms way. We love our church and feel very blessed to Pastor a great group of believers. For 7 weeks we have been kept out of our church and away from our church family. I am fully aware that some people may not understand that for our church it is essential to be together in fellowship. Blessed are the Peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.

In Him I Serve,

Pastor Mike Jacobsen

The hundreds of comments to date that followed were overwhelmingly supportive of the pastor, his family, and his decision, expressed both on the PBCF Facebook page, and on the personal Facebook page of Chris Jacobsen, Pastor Jacobsen’s son, who’s also a member of the church staff. The majority of commenters stood up for the pastor, the church and Jacobsen’s decision:

“I’m so saddened to see how Satan has worked today, but I’m so overjoyed at the steadfast faith our congregation has. That is because of the unwavering faith and love you guys have for God, and for your people!! You set an example, and you guys stand together. We stand with you!”

“You guys are awesome..I would do it again just as we did last Sunday..It was Awesome well worth being there..Seeing Sister Pat up there so full of pure joy and so over whelmed of Gods goodness ..Wow..as i was told tonite there are HUNDREDS that walk in out of walmart every single day and no one says a word ..i consider the source..We are all gonna be just fine and so is the one who is sick..Your Dad did what his heart told him to do..That man would never ever put any of us in arms way..He wouldnt ever hurt anyone and if ppl dont see or know that well then they dont know that man at all..So shush to u ppl who just want to bash..Love all if you…I trust pastor 120 %”

“We all know how tough this has been hard on both you and Pat.Your heart and desire has never been to cause any hardship on the fellowship.This same issue could happen to any of us who have been to Home Depot or Walmart…Let’s get through this together.The worshippers who were in Service wanted to be there.Let us not live with a spirit of fear.”

“This could happen anywhere. Its still not your fault. I would have made the choice to go and so did the other people. And we know you wouldn’t purposely put us in harm’s way. And I still wouldn’t be mad being exposed to it. I was looking forward to coming in a couple of weeks. Still my fav pastor”

“My prayers to the one who fell ill. We all made our own choices to come back. This is in no way on you pastor. My family and I will be ready when called back.”

“Everyone had a choice to go! Nobody was forced.”

There were some exceptions to the supportive Facebook comments:

“You knowingly risked and potentially put someone in harms way by holding an open church event when we are ALL supposed to be severely limiting in person social interaction. So don’t say “I would never with knowledge put anyone in harms way” because YOU DID. How selfish.”

“Praying for whomever fell ill. May i ask what safe practices were used to prevent exposure? I only ask because as our towns begin to open and our children begin to go back to school, what practices will we need to really follow? Again, prayers for your congregation”

“I’m sorry, I have a major problem with this whole thing,If you really care about your parishioners,why would you blatently ignore the athorities, and put all these people at risk,it seems like you are not very smart or you just did this out of defiance …”

“Hopefully nobody dies? things just got real”

“The whole congregation disrespected me and the rest of the county when they said screw it to the social distancing order. I can guarantee people have been around town since then…. you mean to tell me this was a respectful thing to do? You all are a bunch of clowns ?”

“the world doesn’t revolve around the church or God. I’m not less worth of my public health because you guys wanted to go to church on mothers day…. which is not a religious holiday.
You guys are selfish…. “

One source, a north state pastor of an evangelical church that’s obeyed the shut-down orders, described PBFC Ministries, and other non-compliant churches as a rogue “bold minority.” The pastor said that although the majority of north state religious organizations are adhering to the restrictions and official guidelines, the small percentage of rule-breakers endanger everyone.

On the one hand, the Mother’s Day Cottonwood Rodeo was a loud, well-publicized, sheriff-OK’d, singular event with a known number of participants and attendees. On the other hand, here in the north state, there are dozens upon dozens of religious organizations and churches, making it difficult to determine exactly how many area church leaders chose Mother’s Day to determine the end of their nearly two-month abstinence from in-person church.

And while the PBFC incident happened in Butte County, sources report a number of Shasta County churches also opened in May.

Even so, one thing is certain, and that’s the fact that the churches that chose to re-open prematurely knew the rules. They opened their churches deliberately and in disobedience of California’s order to not re-open churches until the state had moved beyond its current Stage 2 level of restriction. But anecdotally, regarding which churches opened, and which churches are abiding by the orders, word is circulating throughout the north state regarding the identities of churches that have taken the matter of early opening into their own hands.

And of course, eventually, even those churches that have done a stellar job of concealing their identities and their unauthorized openings will be unable to do so if COVID-19 spreads through their congregations faster than a Baptist potluck gossip mill.

COVID-19 is no respecter of secrets.

Back at PBFC Ministries, on Wednesday Pastor Jacobsen featured a live Bible study on the church Facebook page. He spoke of his decision to open the church on Mother’s Day, and provided scripture to back up his actions. As of this Friday-night writing, the video had 993 views and 26 shares.

Source: Facebook screen shot.

“I have felt the peace of God in the decisions I’ve made,” he said during his “Doing Life Together” mid-week Bible study. He cited and paraphrased scripture, such as Hebrews 10:25: “Let us not neglect our meeting together as some people do . . .”

Jacobsen said he knew it was important to get back to church as soon as possible, adding that PBFC Ministries wasn’t the only church to open in May. In fact, he was aware of some churches that even opened before Mother’s Day, and furthermore, he knew many churches planned to re-open on May 31, Pentecost Sunday

As a means of justification, Jacobsen explained that because PBFC has so many young, new converts, it was especially important they not be left without access to in-person church, equating the removal of church from new believers to taking “an infant out of the arms of its mother”.

Jacobsen recalled that his congregation had, for seven weeks, obeyed the state order, and had compromised by offering videoed Bible studies and Sunday church services.

“But it’s not the same as being together,” he said. “Fellowshipping together, hearing people sing and praising and worship and loving the Lord.”

He said the excitement of being together as a congregation on Mother’s Day was overwhelming.

“I loved every minute of it.”

He appeared somber as he acknowledged that some people might think he or the church needed to defend his Mother’s Day decision.

“We do not,” he said, before drawing a comparison between himself and Jesus.

“When he was getting all the accusations against him, he never for a moment tried to defend himself,” Jacobsen said of Jesus Christ.

“It seems natural for us to try to justify our decisions and justify our actions. But all we can do is the best we can do. Find that righteous path and then walk that path as Jesus would lead us.”

Friday, Butte County Public Health issued a statement about the church and its positive COVID-19 case, but did not name PBFC Ministries as the subject of the statement. The press release said the infected person received the positive COVID-19 diagnosis on Monday, and is now home in isolation.

Butte County Public Health officials reported that everyone who’d attended the Mother’s Day religious service had been notified of their exposure, instructed to self-quarantine and will be tested. (See the full press release here.) 

Meanwhile, despite Pastor Mike Jacobsen’s assertion that he didn’t need to defend his actions, his son, youth pastor Chris Jacobsen, reached out to parishioners with this Friday-night Facebook post.

“I would like to just say a huge thank you to all the love and support that everyone has shown my family and I we are overwhelmed,” the younger Jacobsen wrote. “We absolutely love our church and everyone that has said such nice things to us, and we love everyone that may not agree with us as well you are welcome to your opinion. God bless.”

Doni Chamberlain

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.

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