Oct 23, 2020

COVID-19 outbreak at faith-healing school alarms conservative Northern California town

OCTOBER 13, 2020

They come to Redding from all over the world for instruction in faith healing and raising the dead. They often approach strangers in local parking lots, businesses and hospitals offering prayers.

Now, state and church officials are asking the student body of more than 1,600 people at the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry in Shasta County to lock down at their homes and apartments after 137 students and staff members tested positive for COVID-19. The cases represent 10 percent of Shasta County’s total infections so far.

Bethel Church and local health officials say the Redding megachurch is taking steps to limit the outbreak from spreading. But health officials worry the dozens of new cases could set off a wave of infections in this conservative community where a group of activists has angrily pushed back against COVID-19 restrictions and the local health officer has received threats for enforcing state mask mandates and business closures.

In a statement on its website last week, Bethel Church said it had asked students to arrive early before classes started in early September to quarantine for 14 days, and students were required to have a negative COVID-19 test result prior to attending school.

But that didn’t stop an outbreak from spreading.

“It’s hard to say if they arrived with it, or if they acquired it here or some combination of that, and much of that transmission is in shared housing, so it’s probably a combination,” Shasta County’s health officer, Dr. Karen Ramstrom, said during a media briefing last week.

The school has since shifted to a temporary distance learning model, and the church has asked students to stay home.

Since they live off-campus, Ramstrom said it has caused some concern that the students might spread the infection when visiting local restaurants and other businesses, she told the Shasta County Board of Supervisors last week.

“So, it’s possible spread could occur,” she said.

Since the school year is only getting started, Bethel students haven’t yet embarked on their weekly proselytizing and volunteering sessions in the community called “City Service,” Bethel Church spokesman Aaron Tesauro told The Sacramento Bee in an email Monday.

He said that when City Service starts, students are “asked to wear face coverings when coming into contact with everyone in the city” and stay six feet from them at all times.

“If they do enter any establishments (i.e houses, stores, businesses, local organizations) students will honor the establishments’ requests and needs to the highest standard,” Tesauro said.

County health department spokeswoman Kerri Schuette said concerns about Bethel students approaching community members “certainly falls into the precautions that our staff have shared with them.”

“When you’re in your 20s, but you’re sick but not feeling terrible, you may still feel inclined to go to work and go hang out with friends or whatever the situation may be,” Schuette said, “and it’s really important that does not happen when you have COVID, so we continue to reinforce that with them.”

Bethel is one of the north state’s largest institutions. Each year, more than 2,000 students enroll at the Redding church’s School of Supernatural Ministry. The school is at 70 percent capacity this year due to the pandemic. The church itself has around 9,100 other members.

Shasta County has around 180,000 residents. As of last week, at least 1,343 people have tested positive for COVID-19; 24 people have died.

Bethel faithful are well known in Redding, Shasta County’s seat, for approaching strangers and offering to touch them and to pray away their ailments including at local healthcare centers — a practice that is now at odds with public health officials’ campaign to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Early this spring, the church dialed back its faith-healing efforts and canceled services as the virus started to sweep through the country and state officials began ordering lockdowns and bans on large gatherings.

Schuette said the church is now allowed to hold large outdoor gatherings on a local ball field, so long as family groups stay at least six feet apart.

This summer, an activist affiliated with Bethel organized a “Let Us Worship” gathering where several hundred people sang in tightly packed groups below the Sundial Bridge, one of Shasta County’s most popular tourist attractions. Few people were wearing masks.

Bethel Church said the event was solely organized by Sean Feucht, a Christian musician and recent congressional candidate who went on to hold a series of similar gatherings around the state.

Feucht is a member of the church who once produced music under Bethel Church’s record label.

Though some church members attended, Bethel’s Tesauro said the church had nothing to do with the event, which Feucht paid for and organized on his own.

Bethel is controversial even among evangelicals. During religious functions at Bethel, church members reportedly speak in tongues and members claim gold dust and angel feathers appear out of the air.

Late last year, hundreds of church members gathered in an attempt to resurrect a 2-year-old named Olive Heiligenthal, hours after the toddler had stopped breathing and died on Dec. 14. Church members gathered to sing, “Come alive/ Come alive/ Come alive, dry bones/ Awake, arise/ Inhale the light.” Thousands of people posted on Instagram with the hashtag #WakeUpOlive.

In October 2008, a Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry student moved to Washington and started a “dead-raising team” that worked with members of the local fire department to pray over bodies found on emergency calls, according to the Redding Record Searchlight.

The church produces a popular preaching subscription streaming service called Bethel.TV, and it sells products including apparel and books. Bethel is perhaps best known internationally for its Christian music. Justin Bieber is a fan. The Bethel track “No Longer Slaves” was one of the top three songs on his iPod playlist, according to a 2017 Buzzfeed News article.

Ryan Sabalow covers environment, general news and enterprise and investigative stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. Before joining The Bee in 2015, he was a reporter at The Auburn Journal, The Redding Record Searchlight and The Indianapolis Star.


No comments: