A Windsor pastor who faces charges for breaking COVID-19 rules after holding large in-person church services, says it's important that his church remain open so that he can tend to people's spiritual and mental health.
Harvest Bible Pastor Aaron Rock has been outspoken in arguing that his in-person church services are essential and has vowed to continue to challenge lockdown restrictions.
It's a view that puts him at at odds with other Windsor area church leaders who have modified their approach to service their members and has made him the most prominent face among the small group of churches defying lockdown rules.
Rock has said that churches should be an exception to some public health measures, just like other big box stores. Since his church reopened in June, Rock said he's had nearly 300 people in attendance — 30 per cent of his total capacity. During these services, he says people have maintained physical distancing and worn masks.
Yet not all religious leaders think a large in-person ceremony is the only way to keep the faith and many have found a variety of ways to serve their congregations.
Under COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, only 10 people, who are physically distant and wearing masks, are allowed indoors for ceremonies. But Rock said 10 people is not nearly enough.
And he's not the only one who has gone against the rules.
Rock is one of four religious leaders and members who have been charged for violating COVID-19 rules in the last week in Windsor-Essex.
Other charges were handed out on Dec. 26 and 27 to two men who are members of Old Colony Mennonite Church in Wheatley, according to Chatham-Kent Police. The men held separate services, each of which had more than 100 unmasked people in attendance.
On Tuesday, the Ontario Provincial Police said that it also charged two people with violating the Reopening Ontario Act due to church services that were "well above" the 10 person limit. One of those charged was a 29-year-old Leamington man and another was a 46-year-old Chatham-Kent man.
There is no set fine for these cases as the courts will be left to decide. The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit has said fines can range from $750 to $100,000.
Despite the restrictions, these religious leaders persisted.
At Harvest Bible Church, Rock said Windsor police have even been on site preventing anyone from going in. Windsor police did not confirm this claim but said its officers do "conduct proactive compliance checks."
"They're escalating things, they're taking on the church and other faith groups and it's immoral," Rock said. "I'm not going to just bow to this and not push back."
Rock said he's not a "virus denier" but that he thinks it's just as essential for his church to remain open as it is for big box stores.
"I could literally call our church this week and say 'lets all go to Walmart and have church in one of the aisles.' It would be totally legit," he said.
"I have no problem with a certain level of medical protocols being in place to protect people as best as we can from catching the virus and for the very, very, very few that will die, obviously we'll want to minimize that as much as possible. But what we're doing in our society is we're making a massive mistake cause we're listening exclusively to physicians who are experts only in biotic health."
As of Wednesday, 129 people have died from the disease in Windsor-Essex, while across Ontario, 4,474 people have succumbed to the illness.
Prioritzing life over rights
While Rock said he knew that his church was violating the Reopening Ontario Act with its attendance numbers, he believes that the police have violated the Charter of Human Rights for interfering with his services.
Yet, religious scholar John Cappucci says now is not the the time to prioritize those rights.
Cappucci, is the Stephen Jarislowsky Chair in religion and conflict at Assumption University in Windsor, where he also serves as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Assumption University.
"When you have an international pandemic that puts the life of the individual at risk and not only the life of the individual but the life of everyone else as well because as you know the nature of COVID, I think that there's room for us to limit those freedoms just for the duration of the pandemic," he said.
The greatest gift is that of life, Cappucci said, and that is what global leaders are trying to save right now.
"I think all religious leaders ... they all should realize, and many of them do, that the greatest gift God has given us, regardless of religious background ... is the gift of life and we all need to treat this precious gift with the utmost care and in turn we need to preserve our life and the lives of others and that means for this time being, just this time ... that we might need to suspend in-person gatherings for this time," he said.
Yet Rock believes that he was "unfairly charged" for providing a service that can also save lives.
"What we're trying to do is to help people find wholeness and healing in other areas, so I would actually go as to far as to say that when faithful churches in faith communities do their jobs fewer people end up in the hospital, [there are] fewer suicides, fewer opioid addictions, which actually frees the hospitals up to deal with the viral issues."
"We are focusing exclusively on stopping the virus, that's all we're going to focus on for month after month after month," he said, adding that officials are doing that by locking people down — a strategy he thinks won't work.
Challenging evidence and advice
Rock's arguments for continuing in-person services often ignore, downplay or outright challenge the evidence of experts and information from officials.
As far as he knows, he said, there's been "zero outbreaks" related to any church and that his church is being more cautious than most businesses or stores.
Yet back in October, nearby Chatham-Kent Public Health had to ask nearly 500 people to isolate due to an outbreak at a church in Blenheim.
At the time, CBC News spoke with an infectious disease epidemiologist who said the event was a "quintessential superspreader event," as church usually involves singing, people being close together and some facilities may have poor ventilation.
And while local hospitals are cancelling surgeries and warning of "alarming" increases of COVID-19 admissions Rock said the viral spread is not as bad as it's being made to seem and said he's spoken with essential frontline workers who have told him that hospital ICU's in Windsor are not actually at capacity.
And even if it was, he's said it's not his problem that the province can't provide enough beds.
As of Wednesday, 90 people hospitalized with COVID-19, with 19 in ICU. In addition, there are 130 suspected cases in hospital, according to data from the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit.
For weeks, Windsor-Essex's medical officer of health Dr. Wajid Ahmed has said the healthcare system is on the verge of collapse as hospitalizations and cases continue to increase beyond capacity.
The region has reported triple digit case increases for several consecutive days and has seen 24 people die in the last six days, bringing the total to 129 COVID-19 deaths.
'We don't want to be an epi-centre'
But not all religious institutions in Windsor-Essex are taking the same stance as Rock. Many are finding ways to serve their communities while staying within the lockdown restrictions.
Before Christmas Eve, religious leaders from 16 churches in the region put together a letter that said they would be holding services virtually.
One of them was Rev. Reilly McLaren, who is a pastor at Windsor Mennonite Fellowship and chaplain at St. Leonard's House Windsor.
"We don't want to be an epi-centre for the virus to spread, period," McLaren said.
"The idea that I could potentially harm someone in my congregation or the community by having a large in person gathering to me is a no-brainer and to our leadership is common sense ... We want to prevent the spread as much as possible as an act of love."
To do this and continue to support the community, McLaren said they've learned to adapt their services.
This includes having online videos, a phone call tree for his members to call and check in on each other and physically distant pastoral meet-ups and appointments outside.
McLaren said it's possible to care for people's mental and spiritual health from afar and that "we don't need a big religious service to do that."
He also said that for years, going to church and following one's faith was never really about having a specific place to worship — it can be done from anywhere.
"[It's] especially important for church leaders to consider how we do church and what that means exactly and if it's only about the large in person gathering, I think we might want to reconsider how we interact with the community," he said, adding that he understands other churches may have decided otherwise.