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Pastor whose church was burned down vows to pray for soul of arsonist, continue worship

Pastor whose church was burned down vows to pray for soul of arsonist, continue worship

Smoke rises from the ashes of First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs, Mississippi after it was burned down on May 20, 2020. | Screenshot: WMC5

The pastor of the Mississippi church that was burned down last month after it filed a lawsuit against a local stay-at-home-order banning worship gatherings says that the church will pray for the soul of whoever destroyed his congregation’s “cherished spiritual home.” 

Pastor Jerry Waldrop of First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs wrote an op-ed published in USA Today in which he defended his church’s right to assemble in worship even after the church building was destroyed in what authorities believe is an act of arson.

“We recognize that not everyone shares our belief in the Word of God as revealed in the Bible,” Waldrop wrote. “We are not offended that others don’t share our firmly held belief that gathering together to worship and to study the Bible is an essential duty and necessary to the growth of the church and its members. And we will pray for the soul and peace of mind of someone who would harbor such hatred that he would take from us our cherished spiritual home.”

Responders to the burning church building on May 20 discovered cans of spray paint and graffiti in the parking lot. The graffiti read: “Bet you stay home now you hypokrits (sic).” 

“[S]omeone burned down our church, leaving only a smoldering mass of debris and our dreams. They left graffiti, trying to shame us for worshiping together in our church,” Waldrop wrote. 

“Who would do such a thing? Why would anyone want to destroy a sacred place where the faithful venerate God in their own way, in a way that does not intrude on others’ rights or disrupt their lives?”

But even without a physical building to call home, Waldrop stressed the church will continue to gather for worship despite the circumstances.

Three days after the church was destroyed, the congregation won the right from a federal appeals court to continue worshiping in person. Following the ruling, the city of Holly Springs revised its stay-at-home order to no longer require churches to suspend their in-person services during the pandemic. 

“[W]e are a church in the classic sense that being together in such a place is at the heart of our assemblage,” Waldrop stated.  “Here, together, we lift our voices in song in the presence of one another in praise of God. To suggest that such a gathering is not essential is to deny us the fundamental explanation for our existence.”

He concluded by stating that he and his congregants believe that religious liberty is a “blessing from God.” 

“Just as the United States of America is a blessing from God. Those two blessings are meant to reinforce one another, and to deny the freedom to enjoy one of the blessings is to destroy the other,” he stressed. 

“Based on these premises, we will continue to worship together and to fight together for our and every American’s right to partake in the blessings of freedom.”

First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs first gained national media attention when police disrupted an Easter service in April as well as a mid-week Bible study. Police officers reportedly told attendees they could face criminal citations for attending. 

“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that in America, in our church — the First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs, Mississippi — I would see armed police standing in our aisles, ordering us to shut down our worship services,” Waldrop wrote. 

“Even worse, I never thought that in America I’d experience what it was like for those armed policemen to hand me an official government document, ordering our community of faithful to cease and desist worshiping on Easter Sunday and to depart the House of God.”

Across the nation, the majority of churches have halted in-person worship services to comply with state and local stay-at-home orders enacted to combat the coronavirus. While many have held online services, some have continued to meet in person despite opposition from local governments.  

Although many churches that have continued to meet in person have done so while following social distancing guidelines, churches and church leaders nationwide have been faced with fines, arrest and even forced temporary closure if they failed to comply with government orders. 

While the results of legal battles on coronavirus worship gathering bans have been mixed, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision declined last Friday a California church’s request for an injunction against a state order restricting the capacity of worship gatherings. 

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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