COVID-19

The frustrated and the faithful: Victoria’s religious leaders divided on how to deal with provincial restrictions

One congregation hasn’t met since last March, while another remains open to indoor small groups

by Aaron Guillen
March 15, 2021
COVID-19

The frustrated and the faithful: Victoria’s religious leaders divided on how to deal with provincial restrictions

One congregation hasn’t met since last March, while another remains open to indoor small groups

by Aaron Guillen
Mar 15, 2021
Rabbi Meir Kaplan (left), director of Chabad of Vancouver Island, hands prepared take-home boxes to synagogue members to celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, which takes place in September. Source: Chabad of Vancouver Island / Facebook
COVID-19

The frustrated and the faithful: Victoria’s religious leaders divided on how to deal with provincial restrictions

One congregation hasn’t met since last March, while another remains open to indoor small groups

by Aaron Guillen
March 15, 2021
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The frustrated and the faithful: Victoria’s religious leaders divided on how to deal with provincial restrictions
Rabbi Meir Kaplan (left), director of Chabad of Vancouver Island, hands prepared take-home boxes to synagogue members to celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, which takes place in September. Source: Chabad of Vancouver Island / Facebook

Ken Hoang spent a day out of his week at the Buddhist temple in Esquimalt for almost 40 years straight.

Chua Van Hanh was a place he knew like the back of his hand, a second home where he regularly found peace, rejuvenation and a connection with the Vietnamese community. He recalls the electricity in the air when a monk from Seattle came to visit and the temple was filled with over 100 people who came to hear him speak and share his wisdom. But since the day the province banned most in-person faith gatherings in November, the temple has sat empty. Hoang drops by every now and then to clean up and tidy the space, but his routine is now broken. 

The 60-year-old regularly practices meditation at home now, but he admits laziness gets the better of him and he forgets to keep up the daily rituals of mindfulness, such as prayers and positive affirmations.

“Going to the temple is like eating food. You need it to fill your stomach and connect with those who believe the same things you do. I’ve missed celebrating important events this past year like Buddha’s birthday and Lunar New Year.”

While Hoang is disappointed he’s unable to gather with close friends at the temple, he’s chosen to look on the positive side of things and wait until it is safe to gather – a decision that not all members of faith communities have agreed on. 

Earlier this month, three churches in the Lower Mainland took their fight to reinstate in-person faith gatherings to the BC Supreme Court, claiming the restrictions as an infringement on their rights. Paul Jaffe, the lawyer for the churches, has argued in court that the services currently being held follow similar safety protocols to Dr. Henry’s order.

In the summer, most churches were allowed to meet with a maximum of 50 attendees, while avoiding the communal use of prayer mats or cups, passing collection plates for donations around, and any shared meals together. But with the near doubling of COVID-19 cases across the province between October and November 2020, all gatherings outside the household were banned from Nov. 19 onward and masks were deemed mandatory indoors.

It's uncertain how the new rules allowing up to 10-person gatherings outdoors, announced on Mar. 11, will impact COVID-19 transmission in the coming weeks. Still, concerns remain high for faith communities and the portion of their elderly members.

Pushing back against public health orders

Vladislav Sobolev says he felt empowered to walk the streets of downtown Victoria during an anti-mask protest in late February. All around him, a group of more than 100 protesters held up signs with phrases that read: “We Are All Essential”, “Churches Are Essential” and “Hugs Over Masks”. 

After their march from Centennial Square, down to Fort Street and back, the founder of Hugs Over Masks, a group that regularly holds anti-mask protests, took the mic to speak and share his story. 

Sobolev was baptized into the Christian faith after moving to Canada from the Soviet Union over 20 years ago. He admits he doesn’t actively attend church anymore, and is a salesman with Herbalife, the multilevel marketing company. But he says it’s his duty to call out government health officials on which activities are deemed as essential and those that are not, despite his lack of public health credentials.

“The government doesn’t have the right to tell us how we choose to conduct ourselves," he says, (although of course the government is largely in the business of restricting conduct such as through traffic laws and prohibitions on murder). "We want to get the message across that you shouldn’t be forced to do anything, including being told where you can practice your own religion.”

In addition to the Hugs Over Masks campaign, Sobolev is launching “Make Canada Free Again” workshops, which train people to begin protest chapters in their own communities. He plans to stop in Vernon, Penticton and Kelowna in mid-March. 

Since starting the movement in May, the Toronto man, who’s since relocated to Vancouver, has travelled across the country. He was on the front lines outside a BBQ restaurant that refused to close amid shutdown orders in Etobicoke, Ontario, side by side with protestors back in November. His latest protest took him to the steps of the downtown Vancouver courthouse, as he stood by to support Riverside Bible Chapel, one of three churches fighting to overturn the rules against in-person gatherings.

The three Fraser Valley churches include the Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack, the Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church in Abbotsford and the Riverside Calvary Chapel in Langley. The churches have received more than $18,000 in fines by BC RCMP due to breaking laws regarding the COVID-19 Related Measures Act. Once the judge announces his decision, exemptions, if any, would most likely be effective for all faith communities. The judge has yet to make a ruling on this matter. 

Notably, the churches were granted exemptions by Dr. Bonnie Henry just a few days before they went to court. Those exemptions allow a maximum of 25 people attending, mandatory mask-wearing, no singing or chanting allowed, no socializing before or after, and a time limit of one hour per service.

A separate petition was filed in B.C. Supreme Court by representatives from 10 other churches as part of the Canadian Reformed Churches, which have around 3,000 members. In addition, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Vancouver is also challenging the restrictions in court, saying the orders are unconstitutional. The petition looks to allow religious gatherings, including mass.

'Something more important than freedom'

If you ask Timothy Janzen what’s fair and what isn’t, he’d tell you that the restrictions imposed by the provincial government against in-person faith gatherings miss the mark.

Janzen, the 30-year-old pastor of Capital City Baptist Church in View Royal, recalls fondly the summer when he could meet with fellow believers. But that joy was short-lived. Janzen says members of his congregation have shared that they feel more anxious and depressed when they can’t attend a service in-person.

“Some people depend on their dispensaries, self-help groups, or other ways to cope, and this is ours. If church services are not essential during the greatest crisis of our generation, then they never were.”

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Janzen pointed out that although faith isn’t about being in a building, it’s about the community that you meet with, and that relationship has felt like a long-distance one hanging on by a thread. Janzen says he applied for an exemption back in December, but that he never received any response from provincial health officials. 

He says the rush of a busy Sunday at church has melted into nearly every day of the week. He feels like he’s constantly running around. He picks up groceries for those who are isolated and can’t leave their home, drops off items for Sunday school classes, and visits ageing seniors in his free time too. He says he tries his best to help his congregation in any way he can, but it’s “borderline impossible to do that effectively”. 

Hyunchoul Shin, the head pastor at the Victoria Korean Presbyterian Church, has grown tired of using technology to connect with his congregation. From YouTube to Kakao, a social networking app with mostly Korean users, he says the sermons, songs or scripture readings shared online can’t replace the face-to-face interaction – something he hasn’t experienced with his church as a whole since the pandemic began. 

Although the public health order allowed faith communities to meet in groups of up to 50 people in the summer, Shin and the leadership team decided that it was safest to stay online to avoid the risk of spreading the virus to their older members. He misses leading church summer programs for the children and listening to the choir during their annual Christmas program. 

“It’s important to keep our freedoms, but there is something more important than freedom—and if that takes the church to be the one to sacrifice itself for the lives of our neighbours… that’s more deserving and more important to me than meeting in-person.”

The 52-year-old says although the restrictions against in-person services have been tough, they are fair, equating them to the province’s vaccination rollout plan. 

“What is fair to begin with? Some might argue that it’s not fair that the Indigenous population aged 65 and older will be getting the vaccine at the same time the general population is only starting at age 90 and older. If you understand and care about the Indigenous people that have historically suffered, you understand that they are now being treated fairly.”

The pastor, who has led the congregation for more than a decade, says there are a few silver linings to the restrictions, pointing out that he’s been able to spend more time connecting with Korean immigrants that live across the South Island, but who wouldn’t normally be able to come to church due to distance or prior commitments. He quips that he’s saved a bunch of time not having to dress head to toe in his Sunday best.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Meir Kaplan still dresses to the nines every Saturday—‘Shabbat’ or Sabbath to his Jewish congregation. The rabbi of 18 years at Chabad Vancouver Island in downtown Victoria leads his service outside in a white tent with chairs spaced six feet apart. The synagogue received an exemption to host in-person faith gatherings last November, due to specific religious needs.

Part of the observance of their holy day is that Jewish faith communities don’t use any electronics and thus can’t hold services on Zoom, Facebook or other social media streaming platforms. Typically a quorum of ten adults are required in one place to conduct prayers.

The synagogue received similar exemptions that were given to the three Vancouver churches in court. Through the rain, wind and even snowy circumstances, their services continue outside.

“The commitment of our members is proof of how important it is to practice our faith in-person,” Kaplan said. “I think Dr. Henry and her staff are trying to keep everyone safe, but I think there wasn't enough consideration for the needs of religious people.”

In late February, Kaplan was able to secure an indoor gathering exemption for one day to celebrate Purim, a Jewish holiday that commemorates the day Esther, Queen of Persia, saved the Jewish people from execution by an advisor to the Persian king. Kaplan and the leadership team prepared take-home boxes for over 70 families to join in on the festivities on Zoom, while less than 25 people gathered indoors at the downtown centre.

In the same request for Purim, Kaplan tried getting an exemption to move all their future gatherings indoors—the province denied the request. 

Loosening restrictions

During a media briefing on March 11, Dr. Bonnie Henry amended her provincial health order to allow up to 10 people to gather outdoors safely. This adjustment comes after four months of restrictions on gatherings of all sizes. Notably, indoor gatherings are still banned outside of your own household. New modelling by the province shows that most people are at 50 to 60 percent of their usual contacts.

“We’re not in a place where we can go back to pre-pandemic gatherings. But we know there are many important religious dates in the coming weeks and we’re working to safely enable those critical celebrations in our religious lives to take place.”

She credits the immunization rollout and expected warmer weather as playing a role in the loosening of restrictions. She sees the process as turning a dial rather than flicking a switch. Still, some churches refuse to wait.

The Oaklands Bible Chapel in Victoria was called out by neighbours in November for holding in-person church services just weeks after the restrictions were tightened, as CHEK News reports. Senior pastor Dan Anderson pointed out to CHEK that he didn’t understand why child care services and self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous were allowed to use the space amidst the provincial ban on in-person gatherings. 

Anderson is seen in a video shared to Facebook on March 5 inviting members to join small group bible studies with the option for in-person dinners. Plus, he encouraged young adults of the church to attend their indoor Wednesday night meetings.

“We had 19 kids last night and our leadership team is doing their thing… and studying God’s word and spending some time together,” he says in the video. “We would encourage anybody who has teenagers, bring them out… get them to bring their friends. People are dying for connection, including our kids.”

Countering that kind of invitation to break the public health order, a group of multi-denominational pastors from the Island and across the province publicly stated in late December their support of the restrictions on in-person faith gatherings. In a letter signed by nearly 40 churches, the leaders thanked Dr. Bonnie Henry and her staff for their guidance and expressed their disappointment in the faith leaders that publicly criticize the mandates, saying, “those voices do not speak for all of us.”  

Similarly, Phillip Washiem, the pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Langford, is patiently waiting for the restrictions to lighten too. 

Although he’s keeping his eyes focused on the light at the end of the tunnel, he adds that the worst part has been missing the pick-me-up feeling he usually gets as he greets his congregation on a Sunday morning. He misses the banter that goes on between himself and the congregation of fewer than 80 members during his sermons pre-pandemic. Now, he spends hours in his office recording sermons, chatting with seniors at The Priory in Langford, separated by glass windows, and dropping off reading materials to his congregation throughout the week. He admits that he’s frustrated with the current situation, but he’s holding out hope.

“Church faith doesn’t happen in isolation; it’s always meant to be done as a community. It’s hardwired in us. I can’t wait to get back to church. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”

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