A California pastor says it’s “ventilators that are killing people.” So he’s holding massive, mask-free services

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On a Sunday morning in Santa Clara, California, at the Calvary Chapel San Jose, officials wearing black masks emblazoned with the county logo plastered notices to the church’s main entrance.

Outlined on the flyers were a litany of punishments the church faced for gathering indoors against public-health orders, including nearly $2 million in fines, restraining orders, and the arrest of the pastor, Mike McClure.

Churchgoers, bare-faced, tore the notices down.

“I took the opportunity as we were walking by to tell them we’d pray for them,” Staci Lares, age 52, said. “If the County Public Health Department was actually concerned about our health, they would be encouraging church and a good diet and sunlight and fresh air, not staying home and wearing a mask.

“I’m not just going to stand by and let our freedoms be trampled on,” she said.

Set in the sprawling hills of Northern California, Calvary Chapel, a nondenominational Christian church, has become a refuge for parishioners seeking in-person services, emotional connection, and fellowship during the pandemic. Since COVID-19 hit, neighboring churches have closed, moved outdoors, or gone virtual.

Calvary reinstated indoor services last May, and since then the size of the congregation has tripled.

Back in December, one new member reported traveling 150 miles, from Fresno, in the San Joaquin Valley, to attend Sunday-morning services at Calvary. There, about a thousand congregants pack into the newly renovated main sanctuary each week, crowding close to the stage to listen to live music, sing, pray, cry, hold hands, and exchange hugs. Nearly everyone is mask-free.

“Something simple, like everyone squishing together in line for the women’s restroom, including women in their 60s and 70s, is a beacon of light,” Lisa Herndon, a holistic-health worker in her 50s, said.

She began attending services at Calvary in August. “It was the only conservative church open anywhere near me that was not outside and not forcing masks,” Herndon said. “Life just feels normal again when you’re there.”

Before COVID-19, a small-town church would’ve been an unlikely turf for battle. But amid a county ravaged by the coronavirus and splintered by political divides, Calvary has become a flash point.

“To be honest, I know very few people who have died, none from our own church, and most of them have died from being on a ventilator,” Pastor McClure said. “It’s the ventilators that are killing people.”

“Our church has always been a source of support in times of crisis. But now, our church is the enemy — literally, we’re the enemy of the county, and there’s no negotiating with them,” McClure added.

“America needs the Gospel, and for me that’s more important than anything else. I don’t care if they burn me at the stake. I don’t care if they put me in front of a firing squad. I told them that you can come take our church property — I know they’re threatening to do that right now. You can come take all my assets, I don’t care. I care more about pleasing God.”

‘The county keeps telling us they’re trying to save us but … that’s God’s job’

McClure is 47. He has bright-blue eyes creased at the edges and salt-and-pepper hair. He graduated from San Jose State in 1999, becoming senior pastor of Calvary four years later, at 27. The church was in his blood. McClure’s father, Pastor Don McClure, had been with Calvary since 1991.

Pastor Mike McClure

In the largely liberal California county, Calvary has become a bastion for conservative and sometimes fringe viewpoints. In September 2018, the church hosted Ken Ham, the Christian fundamentalist known for shunning the theory of evolution.

This Valentine’s Day the church hosted David Barton, a Texas evangelist who believes that the Constitution does not call for the separation of church and state. During the indoor service, Barton encouraged churchgoers and leadership to stand strong and remain open against county orders.

Calvary, which was founded in the 1940s, is more successful today than it’s ever been. That’s despite the fact — or because of it — that McClure faces arrest, hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, and threats to seize his house for continuing to hold indoor services against county orders, which prohibit indoor gatherings.

“The county keeps telling us they’re trying to save us,” McClure, a father of seven, said. “But that’s not the county’s job. They can’t do that. That’s God’s job.”

On December 8 a court found Calvary and McClure in contempt.

“We’re very concerned about what’s going on,” James Williams, counsel for Santa Clara County, said. “They are holding superspreader-causing events that put the entire community at risk of death and serious illness.”

Thousands of supporters and fellow pastors from across the state gathered in the rain in a show of support when McClure appeared in court on January 28.

After hours in the courthouse, McClure, wearing jeans and boots, emerged with the church’s youth pastor, Carson Atherley, at his side. Hands tucked into his pockets, McClure wore a confident smile. Neither wore a mask.

A microphone was thrust toward his lawyer, Robert H. Tyler. “Hi, everybody,” he began, to cheers and whistles.

After giving McClure an opportunity to thank the crowd and implore them to “follow Jesus Christ,” Tyler referred to the court appearance as “one of the best days that we’ve had” before updating the audience. The judge had ruled McClure and Calvary to be in contempt of court yet again.

On February 5, the US Supreme Court ruled that churches in California could resume indoor services at 25% capacity. Six days later, the County of Santa Clara reissued orders barring all indoor-worship services.

McClure is standing his ground. He said his congregation tried virtual and outdoor at the beginning of the pandemic, but the “safe” alternatives weren’t sufficient.

“I hear the same thing from everyone in church,” McClure said. “Watching services over Zoom is like watching a fireplace over Zoom versus being there and having the fire right in front of you warming your hands.”

When he moved services back indoors, in May of last year, McClure told to his congregation, “I will never close these doors again.”

A looming arrest has made his wife, Brenda, anxious at times. But she said she was “not about to abandon” the church she was born and raised in.

Mike McClure and his family

“If we’re stripped of everything, at least we can say we fought for the freedom to worship God,” she said. “If I can say that, I’m the richest person alive.”

Williams, the county counsel, said the church had already accumulated $1.8 million in civil fines associated with its violations.

“And that’ll continue to accumulate,” he added. “Those are going to be very real consequences that the organization will feel, but unfortunately it’s going to take some time for that to fully sink in. And in the interim, they’re continuing to pose this risk.”

‘Masks are a part of a satanic ritual’

According to data collected by the County of Santa Clara Emergency Operations Center, there were more than 2,500 new daily cases of COVID-19 reported in late December and over 1,500 new daily cases reported in mid-January.

The county has reported more than 107,000 cases since the start of the pandemic, with 1,662 fatalities as of the first week in February.

Parishioners at Calvary have not been spared. In late January, a school run by the church, which goes from preschool to 12th grade, had to close for two weeks because several teachers contracted the virus, McClure said.

“We’re not rebellious,” McClure said, referring to the school’s compliance as evidence. “We’re not trying to hurt people. If people from our church started dying from this virus, I would change course right away.”

But many Calvary-goers, including McClure, continue to express doubts about the threat of COVID-19.

Pastor Mike McClure at pulpit

“The whole thing is rigged,” Herndon, the holistic-health worker and parishioner, said. “For me, the whole thing is nonsensical and based on a test that is not valid for diagnostics.”

Lares, who heard about Calvary from fellow marchers at a Trump rally in the fall, said she has turned her energy to “holding protests to open up the state” and anti-mask activism. Recently, she and a group of unmasked volunteers positioned themselves on a beach in Santa Cruz with a “Free Hugs” sign.

“People yelled things at me — one person even threw something at me,” Lares said. “But I knew it would all be OK. God is my protector.” She said she’s been on a “forced leave” from her property-management job since May because of her refusal to wear a mask at the office.

Though she said she knew 20 people who’ve gotten sick and displayed COVID-19 symptoms — including her 26-year-old son — she preferred not to call the virus by its name.

“I honestly do not even give the words ‘COVID-19’ power because this ‘illness,’ as I call it, has not been identified or isolated,” Lares said. For her, the “intimidation tactics” used by the county to shut down Calvary’s in-person services affirm one thing: “I’m with my people.”

Staci Lares

“Masks are a part of a satanic ritual, and I’m not partaking in any of that,” she said. “I’ve had the police called on me several times now for having my bare face out all the time in public. It’s been a very trying year.”

‘It makes no sense to me that people are so damn selfish’

In the largely liberal, COVID-compliant Bay Area, the Calvary is an anomaly and a danger, left-leaning residents said.

Sydney Henry-Ueno, a 48-year-old retired engineer and churchgoer who lives minutes from Calvary, said she had “no sympathy for their claims of oppression.”

Henry-Ueno has had three close friends die from COVID-19. Her 5-year-old son has been struggling at home for months, she said, lacking socialization with other children.

“I’m eager to see this pandemic over and get back to some semblance of normalcy, but there are rules we all must follow to make sure that happens,” Henry-Ueno said. “Every person like this pastor who is messing with what we know works is slowing down the recovery process for everyone … it makes no sense to me that people are so damn selfish.”

This month, in nearby San Francisco, Bob Stein, a priest at the Sts. Peter and Paul Church, died of COVID. The church, like Calvary, continued to hold indoor services despite San Francisco’s ban. He wasone of three priests, among several other members, who contracted the virus.

Zach Bramlett, a 27-year-old healthcare associate who lives in Austin, Texas, said his family “paid the price” for this sort of religious defiance. “There’s no reason for other families to have to go through what I did,” he said.

Zach Bramlett

Bramlett’s mother died in December of COVID-19, in Tucson, Arizona. She was among 20 church members, including Bramlett’s father and the pastor, who had contracted the virus around Thanksgiving.

Bramlett said he tried to dissuade his mother, a retired nurse midwife, from attending the in-person indoor services at Passion Church.

But she was adamant that the services were safe, he said. “‘I’m not getting COVID — I’ve been tested so many times.’ That’s something she actually said to me. She believed it would not happen to her.”

“No one’s coming with a bulldozer or a wrecking ball to tear down your church,” Bramlett said. “Your church is still going to be there when this is over. No one’s coming to take your religion away.”

Christina Bass, a San Jose resident, said Calvary was doing “a lot of ugly damage … in the name of Christ.”

“We have a religious and civic responsibility to take care of those around us,” she said. “I don’t know how that message got lost.”

Many Calvary parishioners see the criticism — from neighbors, the media, and county officials — as proof that they are doing the right thing.

“It’s not news that Christians have been persecuted since the beginning of time,” Herndon said. “This is the moment when the rubber meets the road. Who do we truly answer to? The Lord or the government?”

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