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Christian worship leader Sean Feucht hosted a “worship protest” that drew thousands of people — who appeared to be largely maskless — to the courthouse grounds in Nashville on Sunday night.
Feucht, who is based in California and has amassed hundreds of thousands of followers across social media, posted a video of the gathering, saying the event faced resistance and had three venue changes before landing at the courthouse.
“… BUT THE CHURCH WILL NOT BE SILENCED!” he said in a tweet on Monday.
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Videos and photos posted by those who attended the event appear to show some people keeping a distance from one another, while others crowded together.
A police officer escorting me out tonight said he estimated 9000-10,000 worshippers filled the courthouse steps in downtown Nashville!
— Sean Feucht (@seanfeucht) October 12, 2020
Here’s what we know so far about the gathering:
Nashville did not permit the event
Nashville officials said Monday morning that organizers did not apply for a permit to host the event and that the Metro Public Health Department is working to investigate what happened.
“We have worked very hard to slow the spread of COVID by taking a measured approach to protect the community,” an emailed statement from the health department said. “The Health Department is very concerned by the actions that took place at the event and we are investigating and will pursue appropriate penalties against the organizer.”
Dr. Alex Jahangir, leader of the city’s coronavirus task force, said the event held Sunday was the exact kind of gathering that could damage Nashville’s progress against the virus, which the mayor often describes as “fragile.” Jahangir said he was unaware of the event until Monday morning.
“Any time there are a lot of people together, without masks, I have concerns, and that holds true in this scenario,” Jahangir said. “From the pictures I saw online, good Lord, did you see people wearing masks? I didn’t. That is not helpful to our cause.”
‘A picture of unity’
Makayla McKibben, 23, said she and several friends traveled from Chattanooga to join the event. She said she heard about the gathering from Feucht’s social media and followed along with his previous events.
She said some of her friends chose to socially distance in the crowd, and others stood closer. She also said some chose to wear a mask, while others did not. She said she saw the night as an opportunity to express unity and exercise freedom to gather and worship.
“These events that are being held are considered a worship protest,” she told the Tennessean on Monday. “Because it’s outside, if you want to make up your mind to stand far away or wear a mask … you get to choose.”
McKibben said that one of the messages that stood out to her from the event was that of racial reconciliation. She said she saw people from different races, walks of life and political viewpoints come together for the event.
“The state of the world is crazy right now,” she said. “I believe the only way we’re going to see healing through this is Jesus. It was a picture of unity. Having an event like last night and making a stand as a church — people are going to see that. I want to be part of that.”
Where Feucht stands on BLM, racial justice
Feucht has expressed opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement in the past, but not against the statement itself.
“… We can’t let our God-given empathy get hijacked by a dark movement with hidden agendas,” he wrote in a Facebook post on June 10. “It is unto this end that I have been working my TAIL OFF all day with young diverse leaders around the world to create a PLEDGE that we can sign and post clearly stating what we stand for and what we stand against.”
In the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake by police — which sparked massive protests — Feucht drew over 200 mostly maskless people to downtown Kenosha last month, criticizing the protests and unrest.
Feucht also ran for Congress as a Republican in California, losing in a primary in March.
FROM KENOSHA:Sean Feucht’s visit draws hundreds
Feucht has drawn criticism as he hosts gatherings all over the U.S.
Feucht’s events appear to be connected by his “Let Us Worship” tour across the United States.
He hosted a gathering in Atlanta on Saturday, and has plans to host several more in Charleston, South Carolina; Kansas City, Missouri; Pittsburgh; and Washington, DC, in the weeks to come, according to his website.
He has drawn widespread attention — along with scrutiny — as he has hosted gatherings despite COVID-19 restrictions in recent months.
After hosting an outdoor event in Redding, California, on July 22, city and county leaders expressed concern over the safety of the gathering. At the time of the event, the state allowed indoor and outdoor worship gatherings, but only if safety measures — like keeping six feet of distance from anyone not in your immediate household — are kept.
AT RISK: Shasta County, Redding condemn large outdoor religious gathering that defied COVID-19 rules
Redding Police Chief Bill Schueller said in July that he was “deeply concerned” by the failure to follow the guidelines at the event.
Gatherings in Salem, Oregon; Fort Collins, Colorado and West Palm Beach, Florida, in recent months stirred similar concerns — along with baffled responses as to why Feucht’s gatherings were allowed while many others were restricted.
In Salem, city officials said they were aware of the event but gave no answer on what enforcement would be taken to stop violations of the governor’s orders.
In Fort Collins, the city didn’t issue a special event permit for the gathering, and event organizers didn’t request one, city spokesperson Amanda King told the Coloradoan.
West Palm Beach did not issue a permit for Feucht’s event, on the grounds that it was framed as a protest, not a recreational event.
“The City of West Palm Beach honored the public’s right to peacefully protest, as we have other demonstrations in our city,” Mayor Keith James’ office said in a statement.
Expert: Gathering outside does not rule out risk
Dr. William Schaffner, a renowned expert on infectious disease at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said the event is all but guaranteed to draw some attendees who were unknowingly infected with the virus. The transmission risk at the event was higher than normal because singing and shouting causes people to exhale more forcefully, which projects contagious droplets further, he said.
Based on the sheer size of the gathering, Schaffner said he could say with “100% certainty” the virus was spread at the event.
“Clearly, this is against all solid, science-based public health advice,” Schaffner said. “I recognize that it is outside, but nonetheless, this virus can spread in large gatherings even outside.”
Other Christians, leaders voice concern over Feucht
Feucht has been associated with Bethel Church in Redding, California, where he has led worship and attends with his family. The church issued a statement shortly after Feucht hosted a worship gathering in Redding on July 22, saying he hosted and financially supported the event himself and that it was not hosted or sponsored by Bethel.
“As a church, we value the freedom of each person to express themselves, and people within our congregation have differing perspectives on what this means,” the statement said.
The statement also expressed concern of the shortfall of plans for face masks and social distancing.
“We recognize that much is at stake: local businesses are struggling to stay open, schools are hoping to host our children this fall, and Public Health officials are seeking to maintain health and safety,” the statement read. “Now more than ever, it’s important for the entire community to carefully consider decisions and actions made, as we each seek to love and respect our neighbors. We share in the concerns of risk and potential negative impact that such an event could have on the recovery and reopening of Shasta County as we navigate COVID-19.”
Father Thomas McKenzie, of Church of the Redeemer in Nashville, said the event left him feeling unsettled.
“When any protest includes people in close proximity, not social distancing in a time of global pandemic, that’s irresponsible,” he told The Tennessean on Monday.
McKenzie said he learned of the gathering via social media after the fact. Further, he said that coming to Nashville — a city that has allowed worship gatherings — made it feel like “a slap in the face.”
“For this guy to come into town and start what is potentially a superspreader event and do it in the name of Jesus and say he’s protesting so we can worship is foolishness,” McKenzie said.
“If he could do something like this responsibly? Totally fine,” he said. “I don’t blame the people who went. I understand that. But it’s the irresponsibility that I find appalling.”
Brett Kelman and the USA Today Network contributed to this report.
Find reporter Rachel Wegner at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @rachelannwegner.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Sean Feucht in Nashville: Health department investigating after ‘worship protest’ drew thousands