If the inspectors had been allowed inside, they would have seen thousands of congregants sitting side by side, most without masks.
They hugged and sang hymns and shook hands and erupted in applause during MacArthur’s sermon. When the offering plate came around, the congregants gave $40,046, almost six times more than the previous Sunday, according to the church bulletins.
This picture of worship in the time of the coronavirus has emerged as a seemingly intractable legal and emotional drama that turns on sharply differing visions of safe behavior during a pandemic. Most religious institutions have been following public health rules, turning to livestreams, outdoor services and drive-through events, but a handful have objected, arguing that the government doesn’t have the authority to restrict their prayer practices.
Few churches have captured a bigger spotlight for their defiance than the megachurch in Sun Valley. The congregation has not only continued services but has also questioned the existence of the coronavirus.
“There’s another virus loose in the world, and it’s the virus of deception,” MacArthur told the congregation in his Aug. 30 sermon. “And the one who’s behind the virus of deception is the arch deceiver Satan himself.”
Grace Community Church on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020 in Sun Valley, California. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Throughout the summer, MacArthur repeatedly insisted no one from the church had contracted the coronavirus or been hospitalized with COVID-19. Yet congregants have indeed been stricken and hospitalized with COVID-19, according to MacArthur’s own account in a church interview in April. They included a young couple who were hospitalized and a visiting pastor who died of the disease shortly after attending a church conference in March.
County health officials launched an outbreak investigation at the church in October after three other people contracted the coronavirus. Church officials in a statement released last month dismissed the investigation, saying it involves three part-time employees who have not been hospitalized. Three among 7,000 congregants is not an outbreak, they said, and they encouraged worshippers to keep attending services. “We are going to meet for worship this Sunday to celebrate the Lord’s Table together,” reads the statement. As of Sunday, the church had five confirmed cases. '
The church and its magnetic leader, a descendant of pioneering pastors who preached to cowboy stars from a bygone Hollywood age, seem to revel in their contrarian role.
When the county slapped a lawsuit against MacArthur and the church in mid-August, he quickly formed a legal team — including a senior legal adviser to President Trump’s reelection campaign — and kept holding services indoors. When a judge sided with health officials in mid-September and ordered the church not to meet indoors, MacArthur mocked the county’s health guidelines. And in a September appearance on “The Ingraham Angle” on Fox News, MacArthur seemingly dared authorities to throw him in jail.
Grace Community Church parishioners make their way to Sunday service in Sun Valley, California, on September 13, 2020. The church held a packed morning service, defying a court order directing them to refrain from holding indoor services due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Grace Community Church’s attendance has not suffered, even as a third major wave of infections looms and outbreaks of the disease continue to be reported across the country, including an outbreak in Shasta County at an evangelical church’s ministry school. At times, Grace has been so crowded, people had to stand in the back, according to court records.
MacArthur and church attorneys declined to respond to repeated requests for an interview. MacArthur, in the Fox News interview with host Laura Ingraham, stood his ground. “Our church is literally flooded with people. We have them in every nook and cranny jammed together,” he said, saying worshippers are attending “to hear the message of forgiveness and salvation in a time when fear is being propagated on every street.”
Members of the church interviewed by The Times, most of whom declined to provide their full names because of privacy concerns, gave a wide range of reasons for agreeing with the church’s stance.
Lance, 22, a Santa Clarita resident, said “it’s not that dangerous for someone like me,” referring to the lower, but sometimes serious, health risks the virus seems to pose to young people.
A 33-year member wearing a surgical mask outside the church said that God knows when his believers will die and that they should not fear death.
“When we breathe our last breath, and we aren’t right with God, nothing else matters,” said the woman.
Outside the church walls, however, neighbors plead with congregants to consider the health implications for the largely Latino neighborhood. Many of the unmasked congregants park on nearby streets, worrying some residents so much that they fear coming out of their homes on Sunday mornings. Aurora Perez, a 50-year-old marketing professional who lives nearby, expresses her own interpretation of the Bible on the sign she holds outside the church each Sunday on Roscoe Boulevard.
“Love thy neighbor, Matthew 22:39,” reads the sign. “And wear a mask.”
Perez has light red spots across her body — scarring from COVID-19, a testimony to her own brush with the disease.