Coronavirus brought me back to reporting on religion

Crosscut reporter Lilly Fowler reflects on the delicate balance between public health and religious freedom during a pandemic.

A whiteboard outside a parking lot reading "Welcome to drive-in church. Please tune to 107.1 FM for information and worship lyrics"

The welcome sign for a drive-in church service at The Grove Church in Marysville on May 24. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

I grew up Catholic in a small town on the border of Arizona and Mexico. The bold, passionate form of Catholicism I was raised with fueled my interest in religion. After college, I received a master’s in theology from the University of Notre Dame. I’ve been interested in writing about faith communities ever since.

For years, I worked primarily as a religion reporter — first as a freelancer, then as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s full-time religion reporter, a position fewer and fewer outlets value or have the budget for. The job taught me how to look for the religion angle in every story.

To this day, whenever there is a big story to tackle, I think about those possible angles. The outbreak of COVID-19 in Washington state was no exception. Religion can be a window into people’s personal lives and most intimate moments that are often left unexplored. I immediately thought about the priests caring for the sick and wrote about two who were visiting COVID-19 patients in hospitals and nursing homes. I talked to them about how the pandemic had changed their jobs and ministry. What precautions were they taking as they performed one of Catholicism’s seven sacraments — the anointing of the sick?

Then last week President Donald Trump reignited questions surrounding policies such as Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order, particularly with regard to houses of worship. Trump insisted churches should have the freedom to open their doors to the faithful, even in the midst of the pandemic. He threatened to overrule governors who said otherwise.  

So last Sunday I visited a couple of Christian churches offering drive-in services with my colleague, photojournalist Dorothy Edwards. We talked to churchgoers about the importance of attending service when public officials still warned about a possible spike in coronavirus cases. People offered a variety of opinions. Some of the most interesting conversations were with medical professionals who were religious. 

We talked with two nurses working at EvergreenHealth, the Kirkland hospital that was the country’s first to identify a COVID-19 outbreak. The nurses see at work the repercussions of not following social distancing guidelines and yet value the religious aspect of their lives enough to attend drive-in services. I thought they could offer a perspective on church services more nuanced than most.  

This week Inslee announced new rules for houses of worship. Counties in Phase 1 will be allowed to hold outdoor services for up to 100 people wearing face coverings and observing physical distancing. Limited capacity indoor service could reopen as the infection rate decreases.

The new guidelines might satisfy some. But there’s no doubt the delicate balance between the importance of public health and the right to religious freedom will continue for some time to come. 

This story was first published in Crosscut's Weekly newsletter. Want to hear more from reporters like Lilly Fowler? Sign up for the newsletter, below.

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