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"We will pray for the soul and peace of mind of someone who would harbor such hatred."
Mississippi Pastor Jerry Waldrop says that his church is no longer standing because its congregants wanted to worship in person — rather than remotely — during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On May 20, a suspect burned down the First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs in Holly Springs, Mississippi. The resulting damage was a total loss for the building and its parishioners and staff.
What are the details?
In an op-ed published by USA Today, Waldrop expressed his unhappiness with being told to close his doors during the coronavirus pandemic.
"I never thought that in America I'd experience what it was like for ... armed policeman to hand me an official government document, ordering our community of faithful to cease and desist worshiping on Easter Sunday," he wrote, "and to depart the House of God."
Waldrop said that someone was apparently angry enough with the church and its parishioners that they decided to burn down the structure, "leaving only a smoldering mass of debris and our dreams."
"They left graffiti," he wrote, "trying to shame us for worshiping together in our church."
Indeed, they did.
A suspect in the arson reportedly spray-painted an ominous warning in the church's parking lot: "Bet you stay home now hypokrits."
'Who would do such a thing?'
"Who would do such a thing? Why would anyone want to destroy a sacred place where the faithful venerate God in their own way, in a way that does not intrude on others' rights or disrupt their lives?" Waldrop wrote. "But critics tell us that we are selfish, and that by gathering we are endangering other people who might believe differently."
He insisted that the church was following all social distancing directives. He added the church was only held indoors when the weather became "too extreme" to worship outside.
"If we are such a danger to everyone, why does Holly Springs allow stores like the local Walmart to violate the same rules that we are accused of violating?" he asked. "After our Easter service, several congregants and I went there and found people without masks, people stopping and standing close together, and people acting as if the coronavirus pandemic was someone else's problem."
"How is it that these shoppers were not ordered to go back home and stay there?" Waldrop asked. "Does the Constitution guarantee shoppers greater rights to assemble than people of faith?"
Waldrop pointed out that mere days after the church was reduced to ashes, an appeals court granted the church's request to worship in person.
"We recognize that not everyone shares our belief in the Word of God as revealed in the Bible. We are not offended that others don't share our firmly held belief that gathering together to worship and to study the Bible is an essential duty and necessary to the growth of the church and its members," he wrote. "And we will pray for the soul and peace of mind of someone who would harbor such hatred that he would take from us our cherished spiritual home."
Waldrop said that the very essence of the church, however, is to gather together and worship God with praise.
"To suggest that such a gathering is not essential is to deny us the fundamental explanation for our existence," he explained, and insisted that the church believes that liberty itself is a "blessing from God," much like the United States itself.
"Those two blessings are meant to reinforce one another, and to deny the freedom to enjoy one of the blessings is to destroy the other," he added. "Based on these premises, we will continue to worship together and to fight together for our and every American's right to partake in the blessings of freedom."
Waldrop previously said the church would be rebuilt on site, and he didn't feel new construction would be an issue for the church and its community.
"We are going to keep the faith, and we're going to keep doing what we have always done, and maybe not on this location," Waldrop said. "I'll get with our faithful people, and maybe we'll rent a building or whatever we need to do for the time being.
"We have the means, so whatever it takes, that's what we will do," Waldrop said.
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