After pastor arrests, Al Sharpton implores black churches to stop gathering

Sharpton made the announcement ahead of Holy Week and Easter Sunday

Two pastors have been arrested in recent days for ignoring state mandates to cease large gatherings. The Rev. Al Sharpton has called on other church leaders not to face the same fate.

In a video conference Wednesday, Sharpton spoke with several black church leaders about discontinuing all church services that are not online. Sharpton, who leads the National Action Network, spoke with leaders, such as the Rev. Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson of the Conference of National Black Churches, about the dire need for pastors to refrain from holding church services at least through Easter Sunday.

“The public appeal is being made following the arrest of a Louisiana megachurch pastor for holding Sunday services & a separate criminal action against a Florida pastor, who held services over the weekend w/ large crowds, willfully violating a local coronavirus stay-at-home order,” he wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.

Louisiana’s District Attorney Hillar Moore confirmed Tuesday that Tony Spell, pastor of Life Tabernacle Church, will be charged with six counts of disobeying powers of government. Spell held a funeral last weekend with more than 100 people despite the state order to limit gatherings. On Tuesday, Spell continued to defy the orders by holding an evening church service, with members hugging, shaking hands and standing close to each other.

Spell proclaimed Tuesday night that he would keep his church door's open, because he doesn’t see a difference in his church staying open versus Walmart remaining open.

“We are needy people. Our souls are lost,” he said. “We need help, and the church is the salvation center of the soul, the sanctuary where we come together and meet.”

Rodney Howard-Browne turned himself in to authorities Monday afternoon in Hernando County, Florida. He was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order. He held two services Sunday at his church, The River at Tampa Bay Church, with hundreds in attendance for both.

Sharpton condemned the willful disregard for the law by Spell and Howard-Browne. According to Howard-Browne’s livestream of The River’s service Sunday, there were several people sitting close to one another during the service, but he described his parishioners as “social distancing, or whatever.”

“We are not a non-essential service,” Howard-Browne said during the service. “You’re probably going to get infected at some other place, not here.”

The pastors represented several across the country who moved forward with services last weekend and disputed the scientific reports about the virus, which has claimed the lives of more than 4,000 people in the U.S.

Sharpton said the pastors’ refusal to accept the scientific basis behind social distancing might jeopardize their church members.

“These separate incidents involving leaders of faith putting people’s lives in danger is not a matter of civil or human rights, nor is it a statement of faith,” Sharpton said.