The parking lot of Acts Full Gospel Church where at a rally on Thursday some religious leaders argued for reopening their houses of worship . Photo: Google Street View.

On Thursday, around two dozen East Bay religious leaders rallied in the parking lot of Oakland’s Acts Full Gospel Church, near the Coliseum BART station, to argue for reopening their houses of worship before state and local health officers say group activities are safe. The “prayer and press conference” was covered by at least one local TV news station, which reported that some of the church leaders “went as far as saying they would defy the governor’s stay-at-home order if things don’t change by the last day of this month.”

Health experts have prohibited non-essential group activities, including church services, because meeting with others in groups can rapidly and widely spread the coronavirus.

Bishop Bob Jackson, the leader of Oakland’s Acts Full Gospel Church who is also running for the Oakland City Council District 7 seat this year, hosted Thursday’s rally at his church, but the event was organized and led by southern California pastor Jim Domen.

Domen describes himself as a “former homosexual” and promotes a right-wing agenda that includes legalizing discrimination against LGBTQ people, banning abortion and criminalizing undocumented immigrants. He is a believer in scientifically discredited “gay conversion therapy” and has been favorably profiled by anti-LGBTQ evangelical media for supporting California’s Proposition 8 and other anti-gay laws. Domen is also a supporter of President Donald Trump, who has argued, against the advice of medical experts, for reopening states.

At Thursday’s rally in Oakland, Domen said “church is essential,” and called on Governor Gavin Newsom to allow churches to start holding in-person gatherings again.

Jackson filed papers last year to run for the Oakland City Council District 7 seat, which is open for the first time in years due to the retirement of Larry Reid. District 7 covers East Oakland from Hegenberger Road to the San Leandro border. We attempted to contact Jackson to ask about Thursday’s rally, but did not hear back from him.

Other East Bay church leaders spoke out forcefully against the message that churches should reopen as early as the end of the month.

“Shame on them,” Michael McBride, pastor of The Way Christian Center in Berkeley and an Oakland resident, wrote on Facebook in reaction to a video of the prayer and press conference hosted by Jackson.

“It is your responsibility to … shepherd your flocks, not leading them to a dangerous situation, knowingly and willingly.” — Donna Carey

McBride appeared in a separate Zoom conference Thursday afternoon, organized by Maurice Bates, pastor of the Mount Zion Baptist Church of Pittsburg and several other Bay Area pastors. Participants shared their convictions that churches should not hold in-person services until health authorities say it’s safe to do so.

McBride said churches can do their work in many ways beyond mass gatherings. He noted that East Oakland has some of the highest rates of COVID-19 cases in Alameda County, and that Black and Latino people are disproportionately impacted.

“When we look at the types of places that have seen the largest outbreaks, they have been churches,” said Donna Carey, a doctor at Highland Hospital who participated in that Zoom video conference. “It is your responsibility to make sure that you shepherd your flocks, not leading them to a dangerous situation, knowingly and willingly. It’s really a shame.”

Carey’s husband, Zachary Carey, is the senior pastor of True Vine Ministries in West Oakland. He said during the Zoom conference that he and his wife have friends who have died from the virus, and that they take precautions every day to protect their family and community. “For them to do something like they did today, it really hurt me to my soul,” Carey said about the calls from Jackson and other pastors to reopen church services.

“This is absolutely ridiculous for preachers to do this in public, and not even take into consideration all of us who are sacrificing daily for them to go and take care of people who are in need,” said Zachary Carey.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and...