On Friday, June 26, 2020, the Arkansas Department of Health released to the press a list of churches allegedly “with documented COVID-19 exposure.” In response, I sent emails expressing concern over this process and offering help in resolving potential conflicts created by this release. These emails were intended to be personal in nature.
Governor Asa Hutchinson; Chair of the Economic Recovery Task Force Steuart Walton; and State Historic Preservation Officer and Secretary of the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism Stacy Hurst have been extremely responsive to the concerns of churches. I applaud their leadership thus far in juggling the complexities of both controlling a pandemic and sparking economic recovery.
These emails – accessed by the Arkansas Democrat Gazette through the Freedom of Information Act – were addressed to Governor Hutchinson, Assistant to the Governor Jordan Bearden, Steuart Walton, and Secretary Hurst, and intended as a personal email to provide guidance and assistance. They expressed my opinion as a member of the Task Force and represented the interests of Arkansas Baptist churches across the state. My emails stated my opinion that publicly listing churches in that fashion, and possibly listing small businesses in the future, is detrimental to our economic recovery. These emails also expressed the strong position of many leaders within the Arkansas Baptist State Convention – singling out churches is unfair and damaging, especially the two Arkansas Baptist State Convention affiliated churches on the list.
Those two churches had at least 22,000 unique individual attendees since February 26, yet the ADH put them on the list for having four people attend (a family of three at one church, one person at the other) who later tested positive for the virus. These two churches in particular, as well as a multitude of other Arkansas Baptist Convention churches, have provided an incredible amount of ministry to Arkansans during this pandemic, provided thousands upon thousands of meals, served their communities through Disaster Relief efforts, and served first responders and the medical community.
Governor Hutchinson graciously reached out to both churches and has also stated that he did not intend for the church list to be published. It is also important to state that the churches within the Arkansas Baptist State Convention deeply appreciate Governor Hutchinson’s stance on the value of the role of churches in Arkansas. Our churches are thankful for the protection the Governor has provided churches, and most have been diligent to meet or exceed the guidelines to protect those who visit our churches. As Arkansas Baptists, we pledge to pray for Governor Hutchinson as he navigates our state through these complex issues.