Thousands of people worshipped at Vancouver Waterfront Park on Friday evening as part of a national tour protesting what it termed an “unprecedented attack” on freedom to worship.
The Let Us Worship tour was started by Christian singer and pastor Sean Feucht. As the sun set, he sang and preached emphatically to the crowd, which was largely not wearing face masks despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re supposed to be the change agent. We can’t do that if we’re scared and worried and ‘What are people going to say online?’ Oh, let them talk,” Feucht said. “At the end of the day, there’s one who you’re accountable to. And it’s not the media, it’s not the mob and it’s not the press. You are accountable to the Lord for what you did in this season. Not only is it a constitutional right, but it’s our calling as believers.”
Feucht is a worship leader from Bethel Church, a nondenominational charismatic megachurch in Redding, Calif., known for its popular music label and controversial teachings. Earlier this summer, the 37-year-old began holding outdoor concerts in cities across the country.
An estimated 12,000 people attended a Let Us Worship event Sunday at the California state Capitol building in Sacramento, and on Monday, Feucht and his crew gathered near Seattle’s Gas Works Park. This week, there are gatherings scheduled in Colorado and Minnesota.
Friday’s Let Us Worship concert was held without a permit, said Julie Hannon, director of Vancouver Parks and Recreation.
The parks department isn’t granting any event permits, as Clark County remains in Phase 2 of the governor’s COVID-19 recovery plan. However, the concert qualified as an “expressive speech” activity and is protected — within limits — in the city’s municipal code.
“While the city of Vancouver does not condone unauthorized or non-permitted events, we are committed to balancing community public safety with protecting people’s constitutional right to free speech, provided exercising that right does not endanger or infringe upon others’ civil liberties,” Hannon said in an email to The Columbian.
“We must also focus on enforcement actions that do not accelerate or exacerbate tensions that may exist among people with differing perspectives or beliefs.”
The Vancouver Police Department and the Vancouver Fire Department were aware of the concert and monitored it for public safety, and city staff also attempted to communicate with the event organizers, Hannon said. They also notified local businesses.
Under the municipal code, organizers of expressive speech events are encouraged to communicate ahead of time with city staff so they “may take reasonable steps to provide for the health, safety and welfare of the public.” However, that communication “does not relieve any person from the obligation to obtain any other permit or license required.”
Marissa Armstrong, spokeswoman for Clark County Public Health, said she was “concerned about the potential for additional cases” of COVID-19 following Friday’s concert, as well as the other, smaller gatherings that took place over Labor Day weekend.
Wearing a face covering in common areas where six feet of personal space can’t be maintained is a state mandate. However, the county’s health department just doesn’t have the resources to enforce the mandate and relies on people complying voluntarily, she said. The same goes for restricting the number of people at gatherings — in Phase 2, groups are capped at five people from different households.
“This is necessary so we can continue to reopen our community and safely return students to their classrooms,” Armstrong wrote in an email.
“Anytime we gather with others, there is a risk for virus transmission. That risk increases with the size of the gathering, and when those who are gathering do not wear face coverings and do not maintain at least 6 feet of distance from others.”
‘Unchartered abuses of religious liberty’
Andrey Ivanov, a local businessman, provided security at Friday’s event and Monday’s event in Seattle. The purpose of this “worship protest” is to bring hope and healing, he said.
“What you see is a heart-filled group of people who are just exhausted of the separation, of the hopelessness … we’re experiencing in our country,” he said.
Ivanov said he’s already seen derogatory remarks online about the gathering. People could choose to attend or not attend the event as well as choose whether to wear a mask or social distance, he noted.
“It’s OK to have a different opinion,” said Ivanov, who believes COVID-19 is not a bigger threat than a typical flu.
Ivanov said Feucht had local connections that helped him put on Friday’s event, which he estimated 4,000 people attended.
While most of the evening was spent singing and praising, there was also a message honoring community leaders, an invitation for others to commit their lives to Jesus Christ and be baptized in the Columbia River.
Dennis Fuqua, who directs International Renewal Ministries and Clark County Prayer Connect, attended the gathering. He became aware of it after Let Us Worship came to Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park last month.
Fuqua guessed around 2,000 people were there.
“There was a very, very long line to the bathroom,” Fuqua quipped.
Near Feucht and his band, it was crowded with people singing and dancing along to the worship music. People at the perimeter of the event were more spread out. While a few people wore face coverings to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, “the majority of people did not have masks on,” Fuqua said.
Still, he considered the event uplifting and joyous.
“Anything that points people toward following Jesus is a good thing, and this event did that in spades,” he said.
Fuqua said churches are not functioning at their maximum, and it’s made Christians hungry for ways to worship.
In a video posted on the Fourth of July, Feucht said he couldn’t believe it when he learned that California (the state where he resides) banned singing in churches to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, which is transmitted through droplets. He said thousands of people are protesting, but churches not allowed to gather.
“Can you see the hypocrisy and how insane this is? It really is time, guys, that we take a stand and that we fight back. Not only does this come against our right as Americans in the Constitution, but it comes against everything we believe as Christians,” Feucht said, asking followers to sign his online petition. “We’re going to keep worshipping. We’re going to keep singing.”
On Feucht’s website, he says: “Powerful politicians and social media giants have engaged in unchartered abuses of religious liberty, silencing the faithful, banning our voices and outright attacking our God-given right to declare His goodness.”