A Tulsa-based megachurch was under fire this week after its pastor posted a video showing 2,500 congregants singing, many without masks, just days before a Thanksgiving holiday widely feared as a driver of new COVID-19 surges.
“I understand we’re all trying to do our part,” Pastor Paul Daugherty, of Victory Church, told KJRH-TV, noting that church leaders opted to fill a 5,000-seat auditorium at 50 percent capacity for the concert on Tuesday. “We are a church. We’re not going to reject people and push people out because they take their mask off.”
Daugherty told the station that Bethel Music, a music group and “ministry of Bethel Church,” rented out Victory Church for the event. Bethel is based in Redding, California, and drew ire from its own community in October when local officials said the group—and its associated school—were the primary epidemiological source of hundreds of COVID-19 infections in the area. The resultant spike caused the county to tighten COVID-19 restrictions, angering residents.
Neither Bethel Music nor Victory Church immediately responded to requests for comment from The Daily Beast on Thursday.
Bethel Church previously made national headlines in July when one of its more controversial members, Sean Feucht, held a massive rally at Redding’s Sundial Bridge with thousands of maskless participants in defiance of local health orders. Feucht went on to hold similar rallies all over the country, including in Washington, D.C., where he visited the White House.
Before Tuesday’s event, Bethel Music wrote on Instagram that “Victory Church (the venue) has been given the official green light from the government to come together” and that it planned to implement COVID safety guidelines, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Wearing a mask to the event is highly recommended!” the group wrote.
But footage of the event showed few, if any, face coverings worn by anyone on stage or in the audience.
Though Daugherty said Tuesday night’s event was the first the megachurch had hosted since the pandemic, it appeared not to be the last. Victory Church advertised a “friendsgiving” on Nov. 22 in a Facebook post that encouraged congregants to “bring a neighbor.”
In June, Tulsa was also the location for President Trump’s first mid-pandemic campaign rally.
“Tulsa needs to STOP with the super-spreader events,” one local resident wrote on Facebook, in response to the post. “This is foolish. It’s wrong. It goes against everything Christians teach about loving your neighbor. NO ONE likes the masks or the social distancing, but as a nurse, I am begging you to be responsible and avoid events like these.”
As of Thursday, Tulsa County had 28,127 cumulative confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 243 deaths. Tuesday and Wednesday of this week both broke records for hospitalizations due to the virus in Tulsa.
Under an executive order from Tulsa’s mayor, events involving more than 500 people are required to submit a safety plan to the Tulsa Health Department, but neither Victory Church nor Bethel Music fulfilled that obligation, the agency told KJRH.
A state public health commissioner, Carrie Blumert, told Newsweek she was “so incredibly sad and angry” about Tuesday’s event, adding, “Religion does not exempt you from following life-saving guidelines.”
Despite the onslaught of criticism on social media, Bethel Music wrote on Instagram—alongside photos of maskless revelry—that Tuesday night “was life changing.”
“Words can’t describe the beauty of a unified church ministering to the Lord,” said the post. “He is worthy of it all!”