The City of Vernon is sending a letter to the provincial government to request that church be deemed an essential service amid the pandemic. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star file)

The City of Vernon is sending a letter to the provincial government to request that church be deemed an essential service amid the pandemic. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star file)

Make church an essential service: Vernon council

With mental health crises on the rise, politician says places of worship need to reopen to support those struggling

Akbal Mund has lost more friends in the last few months to suicide than any other cause, including COVID-19.

The subject of declining mental health was raised by the Vernon city councillor in response to the need for opening supportive services such as church.

“People need a place to go when they are alone,” Coun. Mund said at the Monday, Jan. 11 council meeting.

The discussion was sparked by a request from Coun. Scott Anderson to write a letter to the provincial government asking that church be deemed an essential service. His motion was passed, but not without opposition.

READ MORE: In-person worship should be deemed essential: Vernon city councillor

“I think this is nuts,” said Coun. Brian Quiring, who has attended church all his life. “You think you’re going to be able to control social distancing in a church? Not a chance. You’re meeting with people you haven’t seen in a long time and you will not social distance. People are going to have their kids there, it’s going to be mayhem.”

While he agrees that church is an essential service, he does not agree that now is the time to reopen them.

“It flies in the face of what the provincial health officer is saying,” Quiring said. “You would put a high-risk group of our population in an even greater risk.”

Scared of what could potentially happen, Quiring said it is not worth the risk.

Mayor Victor Cumming echoed Quiring and cautioned the rapid spread that could potentially happen, putting British Columbia in a position similar to that of Quebec, with curfews now in place, or Ontario, where they’re not opening schools.

“It doesn’t happen in ones and twos, it goes viral super fast,” Cumming said, reminding his colleagues that B.C. is currently having all those at greatest risk vaccinated, so to hold the course while that work is being done is critical.

“The idea that we can somehow manage this successfully has not proven out.”

With a grandfather, father, brother in law and two uncles who were all ministers, Cumming understands the value, importance and significance of church. But after seeing a friend of his and his wife get very ill from COVID-19 in December, he doesn’t want to see the good work being done come undone.

“It comes apart fast and it comes apart exponentially,” Cumming said.

The request was brought forward to Coun. Anderson by a representative of the Canadian Reform Church of Vernon.

“All they are asking for is to be designated as essential services, like pubs and restaurants and cannabis stores and big box stores and airplanes and small junk removal companies,” Anderson said.

He wants to see worship leaders given the same trust that they will follow public health orders, and ensure their members do too, just as well as pub owners do.

Coun. Kelly Fehr agrees.

“It’s outrageous that I can go to a pub or Costco but I can’t go to a place for mental health or spiritual needs,” Fehr said.

With the Sikh Temple doors being closed, Coun. Dalvir Nahal cited a family struggle.

“I know that my mom is having a hard time because that’s where she found solace,” Nahal said. “A lot of people have nowhere to go.”

Coun. Kari Gares thinks Vernon’s request to the province will fall on deaf ears, but she too agrees that church is essential to mental health now more than ever.

“There is a lot of people out there that are struggling. Church was their haven, their safe space, the place they went to feel whole,” Gares said. “How many people out there right now are not feeling whole because COVID is taking a piece of them.”

Even if churches were granted the ability to reopen, Mund points to those most at risk who are concerned about the virus could continue to enjoy virtual services.

“Those people who are scared to go won’t go. You’re not going to have a full congregation off the bat,” Mund said.

Some Vernon faith leaders, however, stand with the health orders closing in-person congregations.

A joint letter of support, penned by 38 church leaders across the province was sent to provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix Jan. 5, expressing their disappointment with religious leaders of those few establishments who, despite the orders, continue to host in-person services.

Brought to Vernon by Peace Lutheran pastor David Hunter, All Saints Anglican Church Rev. Canon Chris Harwood-Jones was happy to sign alongside Trinity United Church minister Rev. Robin Jacobson.

All Saints has not had in-person worship services since March and senior priest Harwood-Jones said the church had never taken the position that “in-person gatherings are ‘essential’ to Christian faith practice.”

Instead, All Saints has invested time and funding into tech to bring its worship services online and now people from as far as California, Quebec, Alberta and Ontario are tuning in.

“We’re not going to waste a good crisis,” Harwood-Jones said regarding plans to bring streaming services into a post-COVID reality. “We have to do it, so we might as well do it well and continue to do it after.”

READ MORE: RCMP pay another visit to Kelowna church already fined for defying public health orders


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