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Church Culture

North Carolina Church Ordered to Close After Coronavirus Outbreak

A controversial Charlotte, N.C., church was declared an “imminent hazard” and ordered closed until Nov. 6 after an outbreak of COVID-19 led to more than 121 cases and at least three deaths. The closure took effect Saturday, Oct. 24.

The abatement order from the state’s health director, Gibbie Harris, was issued for the United House of Prayer for All People, which hosted more than 1,000 people at a weeklong event held Oct. 4 through Oct. 11. The event, described as a convocation, led to the largest community-based outbreak in Mecklenburg County, according to Harris.

Based in Charlotte, the church meets in several locations, but its leadership has refused to comply with recommendations for social distancing and wearing masks.  

The closure of the church was implemented in part because the church was planning a “Whirlwind Revival,” Oct. 26 to Oct. 31.

Calls to the church were not answered on Monday.

Nationwide, numerous churches have resisted state orders limiting the size of indoor gatherings and requiring social distancing guidelines. Some have sued, asserting that banning religious gatherings is a violation of the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clauses.

In Los Angeles, Grace Community Church pastor John MacArthur defied California’s COVID-19 regulations by opening the doors of his church, allowing unmasked congregants to sing in close proximity to each other.

Last week, three confirmed COVID-19 cases had been tied to Grace Community, although attorneys for the church have pushed back on headlines calling the cases an outbreak.

On Sept. 10, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge granted a preliminary injunction against Grace, prohibiting MacArthur from holding indoor worship services. MacArthur, however, has continued to hold in-person services, with congregants singing and sitting next to each other without masks.

The Charlotte United House of Prayer church is part of a network founded in the early 20th century by an immigrant from Cape Verde known as “Sweet Daddy Grace.” The churches are typically gothic monuments guarded by statues of lions on either side of the entryway. The Charlotte church has a central spire flanked by six smaller spiked spires. It has a seating capacity of 2,500 worshippers in its main sanctuary, a smaller chapel with a capacity of 700, and a parking lot with 600 spaces.

Though often described as a Pentecostal church, the United House of Prayer for All People has historically deviated from significant Christian doctrines and practices since its founding in the early 1900s.  Though the church claimed to believe in “salvation by grace,” it became increasingly unclear in practice if “grace” meant God’s grace, or Sweet Daddy Grace himself.  Disciples would kneel before Grace’s portrait and pray for his blessing and protection.  Some of his followers believed he was the oldest man alive, and he often referred to his experiences with Jesus Christ during Christ’s life on earth.

Grace did little to dissuade them from these beliefs.  He reportedly told one congregation:  “Never mind about God.  Salvation is by Grace only.  Grace has given God a vacation.  Don’t worry him.  If you sin against God, Grace can forgive you.  But if you sin against Grace, God cannot save you.”  When someone asked Grace about his assertions to godhood, Grace responded, “I never said I was God, but you can’t prove to me I’m not.”

North Carolina has had more than 250,100 cases of COVID-19 and 4,100 deaths.

The state is under a Phase 3 reopening, which requires mass gathering limits to remain at 25 indoors and 50 outdoors. The mass gathering limit, however, does not apply to religious gatherings. But the state has issued recommendations for churches that call for social distancing, wearing a mask and limiting occupancy to 100 people per room or 30 percent of stated fire capacity, whichever is less.

Warren Smith contributed to this article.

Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron is a North Carolina-based reporter who has written about religion for more than 17 years. She is a national reporter and senior editor for Religion News Service.