It was hard not to shudder a bit at Justice Minister Cameron Friesen’s latest words of wisdom about the wanton violations of public health orders transpiring under his nose.
The Free Press reported last week that some people in the Morden-Winkler area, the riding he represents, were gathering for clandestine church services in barns and sheds. Friesen assured Manitobans that enforcement was taking place but that it would be difficult to find the underground churches, and that the government’s efforts may not necessarily result in fines or tickets.
"We’re also trying to send the message that we know how important it is for people to gather to meet their spiritual needs."
In one sentence, Friesen confirmed this government’s tolerance for the deliberate actions of some that has sparked and driven a dangerous fourth wave of COVID-19.
Clearly, when it comes down to either ending the pandemic or allowing people to engage in activities that will sustain it, Friesen and the Progressive Conservatives are more than willing to live with the latter, and the prospect of a perpetual pandemic that comes with it.
A combination of tolerance, education and enforcement has not been able to convince tracts of people in some communities in southern Manitoba to embrace public health orders. The Morden-Winkler area in particular has become an epidemiological and ideological battleground, with the province’s health-care system caught in the crossfire.
If he took the time to think about the vast majority of Manitobans who have done everything they’ve been asked to help stem the tide of COVID-19, Friesen might have said something quite different.
While acknowledging the importance of worshipping in person, Friesen could have said now was not the time for worship in large numbers not permitted by public health orders. Further, he might have shown the courage to serve his fellow Christians an inconvenient truth: in-person worship is important, but it is not a transcendent Christian value.
That importance that some churches have put on in-person worship during this pandemic is as fascinating as it is dangerous. How could this one tradition become so pre-eminent that it puts people of deep faith in conflict with so many other Christian values?
Clandestine churches popping up in farm sheds and machine shops in southern Manitoba
Posted: 7:00 PM Dec. 9, 2021
Christian worshippers are secretly holding church services in farm sheds and machine shops in southern Manitoba communities as a way to evade COVID-19 public health orders.
Held on private properties, the Sunday services, attended by dozens, and up to hundreds, have been organized to circumvent current public health rules, which require mask use and limit the size of religious gatherings if attendees are not fully vaccinated for COVID-19. Communities in the Southern Health region have some of the lowest vaccination rates in Manitoba, including Winkler and the RM of Stanley, where the services are reportedly being held.
Increasingly, the leaders of these churches turn to the Bible in an effort to justify their emphasis on in-person worship. And to be sure, worshipping in a group is an important element in the Christian identity.
However, many other religious leaders have made it clear: this one element of faith was never intended to take precedence over other Christian imperatives like loving one another, and making sacrifices for our family, friends and neighbours.
Then, how exactly did we get into this mess?
By now, we know that many of the truly die-hard anti-vax, anti-mask and anti-social distancing citizens find community with each other through churches. Not all churches; the vast majority of churches in this province have embraced social and economic restrictions with an understanding that a pause on in-person worship does not make them less worthy in God’s eyes.
But in some churches, an "us against the world" philosophy runs deep. Not because of COVID-19; this mentality existed long before the pandemic arrived. The efforts that have been made to contain the novel coronavirus have certainly given them an issue to rally around.
These people of faith are driven to devotion by the distinct impression that the rest of the world does not respect or tolerate their beliefs. In many ways, they are not wrong.
Fewer of us go to church or indeed consider ourselves people of faith than ever before in human history.
Gallup, the iconic global pollster, first started asking Americans about religious affiliations in 1937. For nearly 50 years, more than 70 per cent of respondents acknowledged they were members of one church or another.
Then in the mid-1980s, that number began to fall. In 2021, Gallup found only 47 per cent of Americans were members of churches.
That trend can be seen in countries around the world including Canada, where some surveys have said only about 10 per cent of Canadians attend regular church services and more than half do not consider themselves "religious."
On that basis alone, it’s not hard to see why many of the people attending shed services think they are engaged in a righteous act of rebellion against a world that increasingly does not understand their faith. The fact is, we don’t understand it, particularly when its being used as a wedge to undermine public health orders.
We should never abandon the principles of tolerance and fairness. But in a just society, citizens are called upon to earn the right to certain freedoms; no one on any side of the pandemic debate should ever expect to get something for nothing.
Which brings us back to Friesen. Whether he’s deferring to constituents in an effort to preserve his political career, or he truly believes individuals should be allowed to do whatever they want, whenever they want, his comments are irresponsible.
But he utters them with knowledge and comfort that in certain faith circles, he is a hero.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.