A gathering outside Lennoxville’s Hope Community Church stirred up controversy over the weekend. Pitched as a way to share a message of hope with the community, the public broadcast of praise music from the church’s steeple and the assembly of people it generated prompted criticism, particularly on Facebook, both over the question of social distancing rules and the volume of the broadcast.
Annie Duriez, who lives just over two blocks from the church, said that she was struck by the sound of the music as soon as she left her house for a walk on Sunday afternoon and went to investigate. Approaching the corner of College and Queen Street, she said she was shocked by the gathering she saw.
“There were people standing in front of the church, on church property, across the street in front of the library, on the sidewalk,” Duriez said. “It was a lot of people.”
Although initially shocked, the walker said that feeling quickly gave way to frustration.
“We’ve been cooped up now for over a month, and to see that many people gathered was upsetting,” she said. “We’re trying so hard to flatten the curve and all of a sudden, there’s this. It isn’t wise; this isn’t right.”
Duriez stressed the fact that although some of those who discussed the gathering online used the matter as a forum for criticizing people of faith; her main concern was about public health.
“People can disagree and still be respectful,” she said stating that although she is not a religious person herself, she has no problem with people practicing their faith in ways that do not impose those beliefs on others. In this case, however, she said that the very loud Christian music felt like a pretty big assumption about what people would find encouraging as well as a problematic practice in a time when people have been told not to gather together.
“People seemed to be making an attempt to stand six feet apart, but there was a lot of people,” she said. “I don’t normally wear a mask if I go for a walk. If I cross somebody I’ll step out to be six feet away, and it’s just one person, but now suddenly I was walking by like a dozen people, and it was unnerving.”
Duriez said that she called the police about the gathering, only to be told that it was permitted because of what she argued was an unclear government directive.
The restrictions on gatherings established by the Provincial Government state that outdoor gatherings are technically still permitted in Quebec provided that all participants not from a single household maintain a minimum of two metres distance from others. Such gatherings are strongly discouraged, however, because of the difficulties that people have in maintaining that distance in a consistent way.
“I do believe that our group did not do the best job at social distancing,” church leadership team member Paul McLean admitted when asked about the event. McLean noted that although he and his family were alone on a street corner for the duration of the gathering, not everyone kept their distance as effectively. “I think we got a little overzealous about saying hello.”
Although speculation online put this past Sunday’s gathering at anywhere between 30 and 100 people, McLean estimated that there were around 50 people present for what he described as a ten-minute worship.
“We’re not trying to upset people,” he said, adding that he had heard a few people talk about the Facebook comments and that the church will be having “a conversation” about the criticism and how to better respect government directives. He said that the church community is conscious of social distancing rules but was trying to find a way to be in community while also respecting the constraints of this strange time.
Duriez, however, said she feels the event sets a poor example.
“Maybe it’s legal, but I don’t think it’s wise,” she said, “I don’t think they should be putting their parishioners at risk.”
Although Duriez and others in the community noticed the event for the first time this weekend, the Church has been playing music from its steeple on Sundays since Easter with a growing turnout each week.
“As far as I’m concerned, as soon as they saw that it was drawing people, if their intention wasn’t to draw people to the church, then maybe they should put a stop to it,” she said. “When you consider that festivals have been cancelled, fairs have been cancelled; we’re trying to discourage people from gathering and then you see this. When they saw (the group was getting bigger) maybe they should have turned it off and told people to go home. We’re supposed to be staying home.”