AYLMER – The pastor here who defied early-in-the-pandemic restrictions to hold drive-in church services is encouraging people to attend an anti-lockdown march that's sparked a state of emergency.
Pastor Henry Hildebrandt, whose Church Of God's springtime services drew police attention and widespread headlines, is now speaking out in support of this Saturday's protest amid opposition from town hall and public-health officials.
“To me, it is very concerning if our mayor is more concerned about the reputation of the town . . . than about upholding our God-given, constitutional freedom,” Hildebrandt said in an online video.
Aylmer residents, he added, have a “constitutional, biblical freedom” to protest and express their opinion.
This Saturday will mark the second anti-lockdown protest in Aylmer, an Elgin County town of about 7,500 that has been hard-hit by COVID-19. Its per-capita caseload is larger even than in Toronto.
The first protest, held last month, drew more than 150. The community's top public-health official has warned that these protests are "not safe."
The town has been roasted on social media, where the word Aylmer was trending on Tuesday as national media covered the fact a second protest is planned. Several local merchants say the bad publicity will hurt business and damage the community's reputation.
The event's organizer is Kimberly Neudorf, who has not responded to a Free Press request for comment. A flyer for the event suggests it's affiliated with two groups: 100 Million Moms, an offshoot of the American Family Association, and also a group that promotes the "risks and potential side-effects of vaccines."
The support of Hildebrandt could be significant, in terms of turnout on Saturday. Established in 1990, the Aylmer branch of the Church of God has around 250 congregants and many attended his springtime services even amid tight COVID-19 restrictions.
In April, he told The Free Press he felt the emergency restrictions put in place to stem the spread of COVID-19 were an attack on freedom of religion.
"The Bible teaches Christians to be good citizens and obey the reasonable demands of our government," he said at the time. "It does not, however, teach blind obedience to the authorities when onerous restrictions are placed on our freedoms."
In his latest video, he was clear about his feelings on Aylmer's upcoming protest: "Looking forward to Saturday."
The town government's decision to declare a state of emergency indicates they believe the protest "could result in serious harm to persons or substantial damage to property." The mayor, Mary French, told CTV London she has received anonymous threats over it.
Other town council members have also endured abuse in recent days. Coun. Arthur Oslach, who supported the state of emergency, told The Free Press the emails he's received are concerning.
“I am getting a little bit concerned, too, because I've been getting emails. They're not threatening as of yet, but they could be,” he said. “They are on the verge, let’s put it that way, and that makes you weary.”
With files from London Free Press reporter Jonathan Juha
Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press