Relief for Canadian churches, but not for all pastors
Jailed pastor awaits hearing as the country lifts COVID-19 restrictions
Fairview Baptist Church in Calgary, Canada, might be able to resume indoor worship services on July 1, when Alberta Health Services plans to lift its remaining pandemic restrictions. But the church’s pastor, Tim Stephens, will likely still be in jail.
The provincial government locked Stephens’ congregation out of its building in early June for holding indoor worship services at more than 15 percent capacity in violation of local health orders. The church moved its worship services outside, and authorities arrested Stephens on June 14 for not enforcing masking and social distancing guidelines at the outdoor gatherings. On Monday morning, a judge set Stephens’ official hearing date on July 12, his wife, Raquel Stephens, said in an Instagram post.
Fairview Baptist initially canceled in-person services when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020. The church resumed meeting later in the spring, following some of the precautions recommended by local health authorities and making others such as mask wearing optional for attendees.
“We will seek to accommodate [health guidelines] as long as the worship of God and the fellowship of the saints—as set down in Scripture—is not impeded,” Stephens wrote on the church blog in May 2020.
In the fall, in response to rising numbers of new COVID-19 cases, Alberta Health Services and the city of Calgary issued mandatory health orders limiting worship attendance and the size of outdoor gatherings, along with requiring face masks. Authorities began cracking down on churches with fines, seizures, and arrests.
Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church in Edmonton, Alberta, spent 35 days in jail this past spring for defying government orders to limit attendance at church services. Authorities closed and fenced off his church. It continued meeting in-person in undisclosed locations. A judge released Coates, but the case against him remains active. Last Saturday, Coates spoke at a rally in front of the Calgary Remand Center where Stephens is imprisoned. Standing on the back of a flatbed trailer, Coates read a statement Stephens wrote from prison: “To adapt or change what I believe God calls me to do is to deny what God has called me to do.”
Stephens’ brother, Trevor, said about 500 people attended the event. Other speakers included pastors, a member of Parliament, and John Carpay, the president of the Justice Center for Constitutional Freedoms, which represents both Coates and Stephens and their churches. The group sang hymns such as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Attendees chanted, “Free pastor Tim!”
Trevor Stephens had hoped for his brother’s release at Monday’s hearing. “I was expecting justice to prevail, rather than this injustice,” he said. Trevor, an associate pastor at Victory Baptist Church near Edmonton, said his church has followed the same approach as his brother’s, but they have not faced any problems with authorities.
With new daily cases of COVID-19 dipping below 100 in the past week, Alberta announced the end of all restrictions on July 1, but it’s unclear how this will affect Fairview Baptist and GraceLife. “The government has broken promises repeatedly regarding the openings,” said Jay Cameron, litigation director for the Justice Center for Constitutional Freedoms. “At this point in time, any thinking person does not trust what comes out of the government’s mouth.”
Local journalist Carly Robinson received confirmation from Alberta health officials that GraceLife would regain access to its church on July 1, but Trevor Stephens said that he doesn’t think GraceLife leaders ever received notice from officials. As for Fairview Baptist, Trevor said that Tim Stephens’ locked church has heard nothing from the government about its reopening.
The growing drama has attracted attention from the United States. On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., asked the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to consider adding Canada to its watch list. “I would expect this sort of religious crackdown in Communist China, not in a prominent Western nation like Canada,” he wrote.
Two days after Tim’s arrest was his and Raquel’s 14th wedding anniversary. “Next to salvation, it is the greatest blessing of my life to be married to a man who loves Christ and takes his words seriously,” Raquel posted on social media. The couple has eight children ranging in age from 12 years to 6 months. Trevor Stephens said Tim’s family is proud of him, but missing him at home, and Raquel continues to update followers on social media. “The kids and I had a good cry and brought our tears to the Lord,” she wrote on Instagram after this morning’s hearing. “We do not understand his timing and his plans, but we trust him. We are in his hands, as is Tim.”
Trevor said his own church, Victory Baptist, has seen an increase in attendance, and all three churches continue to meet.
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