Religious Leaders React To Trump's Call To Reopen Houses Of Worship

May 23, 2020
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump wants houses of worship to reopen this weekend. It's part of his push to move the country past the lockdowns and stay-at-home orders that had been the primary tools to combat the spread of the coronavirus for the past two months. It's not clear that the president actually has this authority or how many houses of worship will follow the president's lead on this and how many will choose instead to listen to the experts who warn of a second surge in infections if people start congregating again too quickly.

So we're going to check back in with a couple of the faith leaders with whom we've spoken recently. They are Imam Rizwan Ali. He is the religious director at the Islamic Center of Naperville in Naperville, Ill.

Welcome back, Imam. Thanks for joining us once again.

RIZWAN ALI: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Also joining us is the Reverend Thomas McKenzie. He serves at the Church of the Redeemer. That's an Anglican church in Nashville, Tenn.

Father McKenzie, thank you so much for joining us once again.

THOMAS MCKENZIE: Great to be here.

MARTIN: So, first of all, Imam Ali, let me start with you. The holy month of Ramadan is about to end tonight, so I think Eid Mubarak to you and your congregation. Is that correct?

ALI: Yes. Thank you very much. Really appreciate it.

MARTIN: So normally, this would be a tremendous celebration, wouldn't it - a big festival and lots of food? And what - how many people would you normally have?

ALI: We would have thousands of people. We'd have about five prayers and anywhere from, you know, 1,000 to 5,000 people approximately...

MARTIN: Wow.

ALI: ...At the prayer. So there'd be a huge gathering and celebration for our community.

MARTIN: So what are you going to do instead?

ALI: So instead, we're going to have - recommending and encouraging people to pray at home, and then join us online for a virtual sermon. And then different centers have drive-through celebrations. So people are basically - just come in the car, grab a box of sweets and some toys for their children and then continue on their way. So it's - gets somebody, some people, the festive celebration of Eid, trying to in whatever capacity that we can.

MARTIN: And, Imam, you heard our introduction, and I'm sure you've heard the president say that, you know, houses of worship are essential. Therefore, they should reopen. He's encouraging them to do so. And he says he's going to override governors if they don't agree with him. I don't know - as I said, I don't know that he has the authority to do that. But were you tempted to reopen?

ALI: Actually, no until we can guarantee that it's safe for our congregants because the responsibility from a religious perspective - we believe that's a responsibility that we have to God to make sure that our congregants can pray in a safe manner - you know, maintaining social distance and to make sure all the mechanisms are in place to make sure that everyone is safe while being able to worship. And until we can guarantee that and do whatever is within our capacity, I think we're going to have to remain closed until we can verify that - guarantee that.

MARTIN: So, Father Mackenzie, let me turn to you. How are - first of all, how are you doing?

MCKENZIE: Oh, I'm doing OK. Thank you very much. How are you?

MARTIN: Good. And how is your congregation doing? How have you been handling all of this?

MCKENZIE: We have been doing everything we've always done in the past - just doing it online. And that has been, I think, good for some things. We've connected with more people than usual. We have more people watching the service, more people, you know, attending Bible study and morning prayer and that sort of thing. And at the same time, we have people who've lost their jobs and whose businesses have been closed and who are very lonely and are not being able to be around other people. So it's all over the map.

MARTIN: You said you're hearing from more people than you normally do - like, more people are participating in online prayers than you would normally see. You're seeing some new faces. Would that be accurate?

MCKENZIE: We are. We are seeing new faces, partly because people can tune in, I suppose, from all over the country. And so we have people who used to be part of the church who moved away. But we also have new people and people who happen to be in the room when other people are watching a service. It's a strange phenomenon to have more and more people participating in worship when you can't actually see them.

MARTIN: So what do you think of President Trump calling houses of worship essential, threatening to override governors who don't agree with his push to start having in-person worship immediately? Father McKenzie, I'm sure you've heard this. What do you make of that?

MCKENZIE: Well, I'll first say that I suspect that the government might not have the constitutional authority to close houses of worship in the first place, and so the idea that they have the constitutional authority to open them seems a little sketchy to me. That being said, this is not a situation that needs to be dealt with on a nationwide scale. It needs to be done locally. And I think every locality has its own set of circumstances.

And so I think that, like, we are definitely - like, our governor is much more open to, hey, let's get everything started while our mayor is not, and we are following the mayor's advice because we need to be loving our neighbors as well as the people in our congregation by following what our local health department says rather than taking our cues from sort of a national view.

MARTIN: Imam Ali, what do you make of that - of what the president said? And what's your reaction to it?

ALI: Yeah, I think there's a lot of confusion because I think we're getting different messages from the president, the governor, the mayor. I think the governor and the mayor are more aligned. But also we have to understand our own situation in terms of our mosques and our health experts.

So we're trying to piece all of this information together, working with a larger umbrella organization in the Chicagoland area, the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, and gathering all this information to see how we can open in a safe way. And it's just a lot of different moving parts right now.

MARTIN: So before I let each of you go, I'm sure that you've had a lot of time to, you know, reflect on things over the course of the many weeks that we've been going through this now, and we've previously talked just about how much you miss the in-person contact with people and how much they miss you and being together. But is there any part of you that's caused you to think that you might change the way you do worship going forward?

I hate to put it this way, but is there any silver lining in this experience that makes you think differently or in a different way about how you worship and how you lead worship with your congregation? So I think, Imam, I'll start with you.

ALI: Yeah. I think there are many unanticipated benefits of this whole pandemic. And I think that this will change the way that we operate through the Islamic center.

We did have streaming a little bit before, but I think even if we go back to in-person, which we hope is very, very soon, we will continue to stream many of our services and our classes because there is a whole segment of the population that is at home and was unable to attend services in person, but they're benefiting from the communal aspect. So I think that this has opened our eyes to the importance of, you know, social media and streaming and making things more accessible and convenient for people.

MARTIN: Father McKenzie, what about you?

MCKENZIE: I would agree with the imam. Before this happened, I was pretty critical of online church services. But having experienced this, I recognize the need that people have, especially people who cannot make it to worship or who are traveling or sick or whatever, to be able to watch - and also, surprisingly enough, the way that people have been sharing services and teachings with other people and the sort of evangelization aspect of this, which I did not anticipate.

MARTIN: Well, we'll keep checking back with you. Thank you both so much for speaking with us once again. That was the Reverend Thomas McKenzie of the Church of the Redeemer - that's an Anglican church in Nashville, Tenn. - and Imam Rizwan Ali of the Islamic Center of Naperville in Naperville, Ill.

Thank you both so much.

MCKENZIE: Great to be here.

ALI: Thank you very much. Pleasure to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.