Ever since 9/11, Muslims in Manitoba have had to deal with unflattering media coverage of their religion.
Whenever someone commits an act of violence in the name of Islam, it usually makes the news — no matter where it occurs.
When that happens, they feel embarrassed and angry to see their religion once again besmirched by the actions of one misguided individual or group.
It makes them wonder: why does this sort of thing always make the news?
As one Muslim friend wearily put it to me after yet another Islamic-related terrorist act that garnered a lot of media attention, while other faith communities are defined by their saints "we are defined by our criminals."
These days, with GraceLife Bible Church near Edmonton getting so much media attention for defying public health orders in that province, I now know how she feels.
As with my Muslim friends, Christians in Canada today are increasingly in danger of being defined by their "criminals," too — that handful of churches making the news for resisting or criticizing restrictions designed to limit the spread of COVID-19.
GraceLife, an evangelical congregation, is the best-known right now. That church became notorious nationally in February when its pastor, James Coates, was jailed for refusing to stop holding large in-person services despite provincial capacity limits on indoor gatherings.
After his release, the church continued to hold large in-person services, including two packed gatherings at Easter. On April 7, health inspectors and police ordered the church closed and erected a fence around it to keep people out.
Since that time, GraceLife has held at least two in-person Sunday services at undisclosed locations, one indoors and one outside — again, despite public health orders prohibiting indoor gatherings and severely limiting outdoor events.
Worse, GraceLife has taken to calling itself an "underground" church, a reference to those churches throughout history that have met in secret to avoid persecution and death at the hands of hostile governments.
Fortunately, a few brave church leaders have stepped up to condemn GraceLife, among them former Winnipeg minister Greg Glatz, now a United Church minister in Calgary. But the larger Christian community has mostly been silent.
Some might wonder how GraceLife can get away with this; isn’t there a denominational head office somewhere to rein them in?
The answer is no; GraceLife, like a number of other evangelical churches in Canada today, is non-denominational. Its leaders are not answerable to anyone.
That includes the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, an association of evangelical denominations, churches and ministries. GraceLife doesn’t belong to the EFC.
Admittedly, even if it did there’s not a lot the EFC could do; it’s not a policing body, and as a national organization it can’t issue a blanket statement since public health orders are a provincial responsibility.
Yet it is encouraging all its members to follow guidelines "for the sake of showing love to neighbours and limiting the spread of the virus," said executive vice president David Guretzki.
For Guretzki, a big worry is the negative impression renegade churches such as GraceLife are having on evangelical Christianity in Canada.
Their actions don’t "reflect the majority of evangelical churches in Canada," he said, noting churches are finding innovative and safe ways to meet and do ministry during the pandemic.
"We need to counter the narrative of GraceLife by telling those stories," he said.
The truth is that stories about churches such as GraceLife and others that break the health rules will always make the news — bad news, or news about conflict, always does. Readers of this newspaper in Winnipeg, however, are fortunate to get a more balanced view when it comes to faith and the pandemic.
In 2020, the Free Press published 251 locally written articles and columns about faith in Manitoba and beyond through its local religion beat, which is financially supported by 19 local faith groups, churches, schools and organizations. Of that total, 136 articles were about how faith groups are safely adapting and responding to the pandemic.
To be clear, I’m not saying there aren’t important issues that need to be considered related to freedom of religion in Canada when it comes to how the pandemic is affecting faith groups.
As my friend John Stackhouse of Crandall University has pointed out, Christians and other faith groups occupy a tense space between loyalty to God and loyalty to the state. There are times when faith groups need to protest or even defy laws they consider unjust or that harm others, especially marginal and vulnerable people.
But this is not one of those times. The future of faith is not at stake due to the pandemic. All we are talking about is shifting the ways people meet, not whether they can meet at all.
As Stackhouse put it, "Merely finding the government orders unpleasant, or putting a dent in your donation income," really isn’t a sufficient reason for churches to do what GraceLife is doing.
As for me, I’m glad those rule-breaking congregations are few. But I still feel embarrassed and ashamed each time they make the news.
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.