Montebello church makes sweeping changes amid coronavirus pandemic

Local judge’s order sparks church-state debate

Photo+courtesy+of+The+Ark+Montebello.

Photo courtesy of The Ark Montebello.

Matthew Salcido, Community News Reporter

The coronavirus pandemic and related local mandates have pitted church against state in communities across America.

UT Community News checked in with church leaders and members in Montebello to see how they’re handling sweeping guidelines intended to prevent further spread of COVID-19  — in light of a Los Angeles Superior Court ruling last month that congregation members at a church near Burbank be mandated to wear masks at services, practice social distancing there and only attend outdoor services due to public health concerns, according to the Los Angeles Daily News. 

The court order drew praise from county officials, who stated they have continued to push for compliance because it “protects worshippers and the entire county community.”

The target of the ruling is Sun Valley’s Grace Community Church, led by John MacArthur, declined to comment, due to schedule constraints, through his secretary. However, he has said that banning indoor services is unconstitutional, according to the Daily News. MacArthur also added that the new rules would completely shut down the church.

Ironically, pastoral staffers at another local church, the one in Montebello, said they’re now following those rules in part to ensure their organization remains open.

“We chose to obey for the sake of those who don’t feel comfortable with churches that have defied the state and county mandates,” Loren Lew, assistant pastor for the Ark Montebello, formerly known as Calvary Chapel Montebello, which has been a part of the Montebello community for the past 28 years. “We do hope that the state and county officials do not lump all churches together and think that we all are in civil disobedience to the mandates.” 

In an email interview, Lew shared some positive metrics for the church since it moved its services outside: “We chose to hold outdoor services and it grew attendance by double. Also, since we have gone outdoors, our electric bill has been cut by half. So, there have been positives with moving outdoors.”

When asked about the situation with Grace Community Church, which is near Burbank, and what the Ark’s stance is on the church-state feuds as of late, Lew said: “We as a leadership have felt that Pastor MacArthur has a right to do what he deems best for his church. Is it civic disobedience for him to defy state mandates? The answer is not that simple. However, we do understand that there are repercussions for disobeying the law no matter what we feel personally about the state and county decisions.”

Marciela Castillo, a member of the Ark’s congregation, said she is not currently attending services in-person but understands where churches, including Grace Community, are coming from when they want to protect their rights.

“From a legal standpoint, argued from the position of his right to freedom of worship and his right to freedom of expression, it is harassment. However, I struggle with making harassment the focus in light of what I know about this contagious disease and what I see as some Christians being more concerned about their American rights than…doing their sacrificial part to flatten the curve,” Castillo said in an interview on Facebook messenger.

Francis Flores, who has been attending the Ark’s in-person services, said it’s important for church-goers to model good citizenship by following laws: “There’s a fine line. We were asked to do something and we, [as Christians], need to set the example of obedience. John MacArthur didn’t do it, he was borderline defiant, he could have set up a tent in his parking lot and sat 2,000 chairs and accommodated his people…but he chose not to.”

At the same time, Flores acknowledged the government can intrude at times. “Now when they come in and tell you, you can’t sing, then that’s a different story. They’re overstepping,” she said.

Lew, the assistant pastor, said it boils down to having faith and trying to do what is best for everyone: “Ultimately, we trust that God will direct us to do what is honorable to His name.”