The Story church takes heat for indoor Christmas service
ASHLAND — The evening of Dec. 25, The Story church in Ashland held an indoor service, which sparked a heated debate online about COVID-19 spread risk and highlighted differences in viewpoint regarding the application of Christian values during a public health crisis.
A nine-second video posted to Twitter by JPR reporter April Ehrlich Dec. 26 shows attendees standing shoulder to shoulder during one part of the service, speaking or singing in unison. None are seen wearing face coverings. Ehrlich said the service appeared “crowded” and “mostly maskless.”
The Story church building was subsequently tagged with graffiti, now barely visible under a coat of paint, which read “COVID spreader.”
In the following days, residents took to social media to vent frustration — others spread words of encouragement for the church to continue assembling in person. Some said now is not the time to worship together and asked for in-person services to cease until the burden on hospitals eases, out of respect for health care workers. Others commended the church for respecting individual freedom and said no government rule would keep them from worshiping together.
Christopher Minson, a neighbor to The Story, shared a response he said came from the church when neighbors voiced fear about proximity to a large gathering and intentions to report it to public health officials. Some who condemned the gathering estimated more than 100 people attended. In the response, The Story said masks are provided but not required to attend services.
“The Story values creating a culture that allows people to come just as they are, regardless of their beliefs. Our heart as a church is that we don’t believe it is right to turn anyone away for not wearing a mask,” the response said. “Some people do choose to wear masks and social distance and some choose not to. We are respecting the choice of each person and trust that informed individuals will make the healthiest choice for themselves and their families about using masks and distancing. We believe there is no shame in whatever decision each individual makes. The Story is continuing to livestream our gatherings for those who choose to watch from home, as well.”
The Story did not respond to requests for comment from the Ashland Tidings.
Minson, who said two members of his inner circle suffer from COVID-19 symptoms one month after diagnosis, also said the church owes the town of Ashland an apology for hosting gatherings that endanger public safety.
“I get why they’d want to have a service, I think we’re all in that position,” Minson said. “When it comes down to it, it’s a matter of life or death for some people. Against that backdrop, I think freedom to do what you want needs to be balanced.”
Minson said he has not encountered challenges with The Story in the past and considered attending the church himself prior this.
According to the Oregon Health Authority, as of Dec. 18, faith institutions, funeral homes, mortuaries and cemeteries are required to comply with statewide mask, face covering and face shield guidance. Guidelines on capacity are more flexible.
“Operators of faith institutions should, but are not required to limit maximum occupancy based on the designated risk level of the county in which the faith institution is located,” according to OHA.
Occupancy for faith institutions in “extreme risk” counties, including Jackson County, is capped at 25% or 100 people indoors and up to 150 people outdoors, with a recommendation to limit services to one hour.
The same guidelines say faith institutions are required to maintain a distance of 6 feet between people of different households, arrange seating to accommodate spacing, assign a monitor to ensure distancing occurs throughout the space, and prohibit inter-household mingling both indoors and outdoors.
Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.