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Pastors under threat - Defiant funeral crowds pressure clergy to ignore gathering ban

Published:Thursday | March 4, 2021 | 12:14 AMNadine Wilson-Harris/Staff Reporter
Peter Garth
Peter Garth

Stubborn resistance by mourners to the coronavirus law has forced some churches to refuse to officiate funerals, causing clergymen to even summon the police to defuse clashes that threaten to get physical. Religious leaders are being pressured,...

Stubborn resistance by mourners to the coronavirus law has forced some churches to refuse to officiate funerals, causing clergymen to even summon the police to defuse clashes that threaten to get physical.

Religious leaders are being pressured, particularly by bereaved family travelling from overseas, to disregard the gathering ban, said head of the Jamaica Umbrella Group of Churches (JUGC), the Reverend Peter Garth.

No more than 10 guests and five funeral officials are allowed to attend funerals under the Disaster Risk Management Act.

Funerals and burials will be banned from March 8 to 22 under the amended order, Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced on Sunday.

Strict social-distancing rules imposed to curb the pandemic have upended Jamaica’s noisy grieving traditions, marked by convivial wakes and overflowing funerals and repasts. Though some mourners have been compliant, others have breached the law with impunity.

“I have pastors who have had to walk away and not commit bodies because of the behaviour,” said Garth, whose JUGC comprises seven denominations and, combined, represents an estimated 97 per cent of all churches in Jamaica.

Pastors are sometimes verbally attacked when they remind family members of the existing protocols, Garth added.

Funerals have been viewed as superspreaders ever since the first SARS-CoV-2 case was recorded here. Patient One had travelled from the United Kingdom and attended the funeral of Gloria Clarke on March 7, 2020.

Garth disclosed that increasingly, pastors were being invited to funeral homes to conduct farewell services, but even there, mourners refused to obey the law.

He has observed these breaches himself and brought a thanksgiving service to a halt.

“Somebody asked me if I really was going to walk away, and I said, ‘Yes,’ because when I look at the AC unit, they were not clean at all, and the persons were just like one chair apart,” he told The Gleaner.

“... Some persons won’t care. They say, ‘Let police lock me up. I am prepared to be locked up, but I have to see my brother, I have to see my friend going down’.”

Head of the Independent Churches of Jamaica, Bishop Neville Owens, said that the wave of indiscipline has caused some churches to limit the number of funerals they host.

Owens has sought to encourage grieving families to engage funeral parlours that have assembly areas.

He lamented that pastors have had to shoulder responsibility for crowd management in the face of defiant attendees.

While Owens said he did not personally know of any pastor who has been physically attacked because of their stance on safety, he has heard of cases where threats were issued by mourners.

“Sometimes some churches have to call the police for help to assist them in managing the crowd,” said Owens, a senior pastor at Love and Faith World Outreach Ministries.

Representatives of the seven umbrella church groups were invited to a virtual meeting with Holness on Tuesday to discuss the new protocols outlined on Sunday.

The umbrella groups are the Jamaica Council of Churches, Jamaica Full Gospel Churches, the Jamaica Association of Evangelical Alliance, the Jamaica Pentecostal Union, Church of God in Jamaica, the Jamaica Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and Independent Churches of Jamaica.

All churches are required to engage in only online services during the period March 1-22. Only a maximum of 10 persons (including clergy) will be allowed to be physically present at places of worship to facilitate streaming.

Besides restrictions on funerals, 25 persons will be allowed at weddings until March 22.

“Churches, in general, have done well to supervise themselves, and many of them have put in place measures over and above what we have put in the Disaster Risk Management Act,” Holness said.

Garth said a few church leaders have been refusing to observe the protocols, and the JUGC has been reaching out to encourage compliance.

Christine McLean, pastor of the City of Refuge Endtime Prophetic Ministries church in Windsor Heights, St Ann’s Bay, was charged earlier this week for breaching the Disaster Risk Management Act.

It is alleged that a church service with more than 50 congregants was being held in breach of the coronavirus legislation. Most of the congregants were reportedly not wearing masks or observing social-distancing rules and refused to do so when they were cautioned by the police.

“There are those who believe that God is bigger than the pandemic, and they are not going to follow the rules,” said Garth.