Pentecostal churches in Atlantic Canada under scrutiny as push to vaccinate ramps up

·5 min read

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Recent COVID-19 outbreaks in Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick have focused attention on what is being preached in Pentecostal churches in the affected areas, but a religious scholar says any ministers advocating against vaccination would be exceptions within the faith.

Pentecostalism is a form of Christianity known for its exuberant pastors preaching or singing about demons, congregations swaying with their hands raised in ecstasy and even speaking in tongues. Though its numbers are small, the denomination has fallen under scrutiny in Atlantic Canada as governments work to get needles into the arms of the unvaccinated.

In Bishop's Falls, N.L., the First United Pentecostal Church was at the centre of a COVID-19 outbreak this month that ultimately involved 56 infections and killed at least one unvaccinated congregant. The province described the cluster as being among "a group that is closely socially connected," and Premier Andrew Furey responded by convening a meeting of religious leaders, including Pentecostals, to discuss the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The First United Pentecostal Church's pastor, Leroy Gee, said he complies with whatever public health rules the government introduces, but he worries forced compliance — like requiring vaccination to access services or hold certain jobs — is a sign of increasing control that could have Biblical consequences.

"God doesn't force anybody to serve Him," Gee said in an interview Wednesday. "But we're moving into a time when you're going to be forced to serve the system. And the system is going to be what is known as the tribulation, or the Antichrist system."

In New Brunswick, a Pentecostal church, Amazing Grace, was named as the location of an exposure notification in the northwest of the province on Aug. 29. Joe Gee, a resident of the nearby town of Carlingford, N.B., who is not related to the Newfoundland pastor, said in a recent telephone interview he believes some of his family members were exposed to the virus as a result of its spread in the church, and he wants health officials to investigate what happened. He said his unvaccinated father died as a result of the outbreak.

Last weekend in Saint John, N.B., officials found His Tabernacle Family Church to be violating public health orders. "Investigations are ongoing, and matters are before the courts," Health Minister Dorothy Shephard told reporters Tuesday.

Phil Hutchings, the Saint John church's founder and lead pastor, posted Sunday to Facebook: "We had a packed service tonight and it was powerful!!! But I forgot to tell Public Safety that we changed locations," followed by a laughing emoji. The church's website says Hutchings, who did not respond to a request for an interview, was trained at the Pentecostal Zion Bible College in Rhode Island.

Leroy Gee said he is vaccinated but he doesn't feel it's his place to tell his congregation in Bishop's Falls to follow suit. "As a minister, I'm in town here to help people spiritually," he said.

Roy Dee, pastor at Amazing Grace in New Brunswick, said in a recent interview the majority of people in his church are fully vaccinated, and he’s never explicitly preached against the practice. “The only thing I’ve ever told my parishioners is to be led by peace and to pray about their decisions," Dee said. "That’s between them and the Lord."

If Pentecostal churches are preaching against vaccination, or breaking public health rules, they're exceptions within the faith, said Bradley Noel, chair of the department of Christian ministries at Tyndale University, a private evangelical Christian university in Toronto.

"Our pastors ... have done their level best to encourage people to follow public health guidelines," said Noel, who is also a minister with the Pentecostal Assemblies of Newfoundland and Labrador. Unlike the Pope, who urged followers to get vaccinated in August, Pentecostal leaders are more likely to stick to spiritual guidance and tell their congregation to talk to a doctor for COVID-19 advice, he said.

He did note that a few Pentecostal churches in Newfoundland are now hosting vaccination clinics.

"Pentecostals, in my experience today, are not anti-science," he said. The faith does have isolationist roots, he acknowledged, and its early members saw themselves as relatively counterculture. "They believe in angels and demons, they believe in healing. They have a very supernatural world view that they believe is reflected in the Bible."

Both Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick have said churches can choose to use the provinces' vaccine passport systems or they can hold gatherings at 50 per cent capacity, among other restrictions. Noel said that's a lot to ask any church, Pentecostal or not. "No pastor wants to turn anyone away at the door who's come out Sunday morning to worship."

The Pentecostal population of Newfoundland and Labrador is about 33,200 people, or just over six per cent of the population, according to Statistics Canada's 2011 National Household Survey. As a portion of the population, that's the largest Pentecostal presence in the country.

Most of the province's Pentecostal churches are in the so-called Bible Belt region, which stretches across central Newfoundland from Gander to the Baie Verte peninsula, Noel said. There are at least two in Bishop's Falls, which has a population of about 3,000 people.

The Bible Belt is also home to some of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the province, government data shows. But Noel cautions against drawing a connection.

"Pentecostalism may have done well there because the people were of a reasonably conservative mindset," he said. "That reasonably conservative mindset might be leading them to particular forms of media, and those particular forms of media might be questioning the efficacy of the vaccines."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 14, 2021.

— With files from Michael Tutton in Halifax

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

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