Trump consults faith leaders on phased-in reopening

NEW YORK (AP) — President Donald Trump held a call with faith leaders on Friday that included discussion about a phased-in return to broader in-person worship after weeks of religious services largely shifting online in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump’s call with faith leaders came one day after the White House included houses of worship among “large venues” that could be able to reopen while observing “strict physical distancing protocols” in the first stage of a three-part plan to reopen a U.S. economy that’s been frozen by the toll of the highly contagious virus.

The call included representatives of multiple Christian denominations as well as Jewish and Islamic leaders, according to a statement distributed by the White House.

Trump “mentioned his memories as a young child attending Billy Graham’s service at Yankee Stadium, and acknowledged that while he has enjoyed watching services online from the White House, he told the faith leaders it is important for people to soon be able to once again come together, pray, and worship,” the White House said in its statement.

Participants in the call with faith leaders said it featured discussion about how restarting in-person worship could work, without any conclusion reached, and underscored their commitment to not imperiling the health of the faithful. Indeed, Trump has said that governors would be empowered to spearhead their states’ paces of economic reopening.

Jack Graham, pastor of Texas-based Prestonwood Baptist Church, said the call included conversation about “how would we go about bringing people back together,” adding that those involved agreed that “we’re going to do that carefully and gradually, and not put people at risk.”

Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Council, said that religious institutions “want to be a blessing and not a burden” by not returning to practices that could “cause more harm than good” if taken up too early.

Rodriguez added that he hoped to see clergy and other faith leaders nationwide identified as essential workers, as well as a clear resumption of outdoor religious services that can be conducted with people remaining in their automobiles. That sort of step would “help us transition to a new normal,” he said.

Cissie Graham Lynch of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse, said churches would be committed to keeping their congregations safe and emphasized the importance of healing the spiritual pain caused by widespread social distancing restrictions imposed to fight the virus.

“People are lonely, people are scared,” Lynch said.

Those who participated in the call described Trump as closely engaged in the discussion.

“We may be opening, but we’re putting safety first,” the president told reporters Friday.

The faith leaders’ conversation with Trump is not the only sign that religious leaders are beginning to explore how to resume in-person worship services. The Christian executive search firm Vanderbloemen has launched and websites to start a conversation on that process.