Momentum growing for Vancouver pastor’s proposal to reopen spiritual gatherings


Northwest Gospel Church Lead Pastor Andrew Murch and his church’s leadership team have thousands of faith leaders and members who have joined in the support of their proposal to Gov. Jay Inslee

VANCOUVER — Northwest Gospel Church Lead Pastor Andrew Murch just wants spiritual gatherings in the state of Washington to be treated like every other.

Clark County Today first published an opinion piece written by Murch on May 6 in which he shared his thoughts on how spiritual gatherings fit into Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phased approach to reopening Washington state. Specifically, he asked that Inslee allow spiritual gatherings to return on a similar schedule to the planned reopening of restaurants and movie theaters.

Andrew Murch has been a pastor at Vancouver’s Northwest Gospel Church for the past 10 years. He has created a proposal for modifications to the governor’s four-phased plan to reopen Washington, asking that spiritual gatherings be allowed to reopen on a similar schedule with restaurants and movie theaters. Photo courtesy of Northwest Gospel Church
Andrew Murch has been a pastor at Vancouver’s Northwest Gospel Church for the past 10 years. He has created a proposal for modifications to the governor’s four-phased plan to reopen Washington, asking that spiritual gatherings be allowed to reopen on a similar schedule with restaurants and movie theaters. Photo courtesy of Northwest Gospel Church

In the days that followed the publishing of Murch’s thoughts, the pastor and other members of the leadership team at Vancouver’s Northwest Gospel Church have provided an opportunity for others in Clark County, and throughout the state, to join the plea for the governor to adjust his approach to restarting Washington.

“We’re thankful for a country and community where we can respectfully add to the dialogue on how to best care for the holistic health of our citizens,’’ said Murch, who has served at Northwest Gospel Church for the past 10 years. “That’s the entire goal of this policy proposal and appeal. As Christians, and I simply speak for myself and my congregation, our desire is to be faithful in a time marked by fear and frustration. We believe people are created, and the Bible teaches this, for healthy community and meaningful work. We’re looking forward to seeing all Washingtonians able to re-engage safely and responsibly in those arenas very soon.’’

Murch and his fellow church leaders created a website where the full proposal can be viewed and fellow faith leaders and members can support the proposal. The website was made active on Friday and by Monday it had 2,630 supporters, many of whom reside right here in Clark County. That website can be found at https://www.wafaithgatherings.com/.

“I think it’s been good so far,’’ Murch said of the response. “It’s been encouraging to see. We will pass 3,000 names today (Tuesday). We have a number of Zoom calls scheduled today with dozens of other Clark County-area pastors. I’m hoping to see it catch fire a little more this week. I’ve never done anything like this before, so I don’t know what to expect.’’

In addition to crafting the proposal and creating the website, the team at Northwest Gospel Church has also shared the proposal with all of the area state legislators. Murch said it’s really up to them to convince the governor to change his stance on spiritual gatherings.

“That’s really the check and balances of our government and Constitution,’’ Murch said. “It puts the onus on the legislature to take it to the governor. We’ve kind of done our part in writing the proposal. That’s our role. Now it’s in the hands of the legislators to take those things and lobby for them in Olympia.’’

Gov. Inslee’s four-phased approach proposes that restaurants will open up at 50 percent capacity in Phase 2. Movie theaters can open at 50 percent capacity in Phase 3. Murch’s proposal asks the governor to allow spiritual gatherings to reopen at 25 percent capacity in Phase 2 and 50 percent capacity in Phase 3.

“We’re just looking for equitability there in the phased approach as it is supported by the scientific data,’’ Murch said. “We are seeing a lot of stress in our state, our nation and in our local community.’’

Murch said he and his fellow leaders are presenting their proposal “in an honorable and respectful way.’’

“There is frustration growing in our community and in our state,’’ he said. “We want to engage the system, but we’ve treaded lightly into this sphere because we wanted to do it respectfully and honorably.

“This is really a unique, generational moment for us,’’ Murch added. “We are concerned for our community. The ability for communities of faith to provide the spiritual, emotional, mental, and indeed, physical health guidance and care … that’s why we’re here. We’re here to serve our communities, to love our communities. We want to be on the frontlines helping people during this time and serving our community.’’

Here’s the complete proposal, which can also be found at https://www.wafaithgatherings.com/.

Safe Start Gathering Proposal 

As Washington state faith leaders, we were grateful for this statement in the Governor’s proclamation (20-25.3) released on May 4, 2020: “… many people in Washington State attend religious services on a regular basis. Such services are a vital part of the spiritual and mental health of our community, and some of these services can be conducted in a manner similar to comparable secular activities to prevent prolonged exposure to individuals outside of their immediate household while ensuring safe social distancing and hygiene practices.”

We heartily affirm the Governor’s statement above. It reflects the necessity of a holistic approach to promoting the health of Washingtonians; physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. We believe, as this proclamation affirms, that religious services are vital to our citizens, and that they should be reopened in a manner similar to comparable secular activities. In that light, we appeal to the Governor in this proposal to ask for his administration to consider the following adjustment to the phased approach. 

In Phase 2, restaurants will open up at up to 50% capacity. Many of the large chain restaurants in our communities can accommodate between 200-300 people in their dining areas at regular lunch and dinner hours. This means these restaurants can serve gatherings of patrons between 100-150 at a time, but even more in larger establishments. As the crowds turn over, on any given day and night, patronage at an Olive Garden or Spaghetti Factory could range from 500 to over 1,000 in a single day, seven days a week. Many of these restaurants operate with a single main entrance and waiting area. Even seating only 5 per table or booth, all patrons will use the same restrooms, be exposed to the same wait staff, and walk in and out of the same cramped corridors and pinch points at entrances and exits. The same logic would apply when movie theaters open in Phase 3 at 50%. 

We are asking for equitability and a scientific and data-driven approach to the phased reopening of religious gatherings. We are appealing to the Governor to treat “gatherings” of a religious nature in keeping with gatherings at restaurants in Phase 2 and gatherings at movie theaters in Phase 3. Specifically, we are asking that spiritual gatherings could be reopened in Phase 2 at 25% of facility capacity, and 50% in Phase 3. 

The facilities of most religious congregations in Washington State can accommodate less than major chain restaurants. For those that have a seating capacity of 150, that would mean gatherings of under 40 people in Phase 2, and under 75 in Phase 3. For those who can accommodate 500 in their main room, the max gathering size would be 125 in Phase 2 and 250 in Phase 3. For the very few that have seating capacity of 1,000 or more, the reality of these facilities is that they have massive parking lots, sprawling lobbies, multiple main entrances, and the capability to maintain strict distancing and hygiene guidelines in keeping with any major retailer. People are not safer 7 days a week in restaurants for an hour and movie theaters for 2 hours than they are one day a week for 90 minutes in a church, synagogue, or mosque. 

The Governor has stated that all counties are in Phase 1 and there will be “at least 3 weeks between phases.” If the current trajectory holds, this would mean Phase 2 could begin sometime in late May. The final week of May is one of the most sacred of the year for three of the major world religions observed by Washingtonians. In the same week that Christians celebrate Pentecost Sunday (May 31), Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr (May 23-24), and Jews celebrate Shavuot (May 28-30). We believe equitability in Phase 2 means that spiritual gatherings for these various faiths should be allowed to reopen. 

Spiritual gatherings that observe the following regulations present no greater risk to Washingtonians than the opening of restaurants or movie theaters. Specific guidelines: 

1) No more than 25% capacity of the main gathering room admitted in Phase 2, 50% in Phase 3. 

2) All entrances to facility and main meeting space utilized for entry and exit. 

3) Social distancing (6 feet) maintained by those outside immediate household. 

4) Masks worn by any hospitality staff and provided for those in attendance. 

5) Main rooms and entry points sanitized before and after each gathering. 

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