Father and son Pastors Charles Clark Jr. and Charles Clark III have both received summons from the state for opening Solid Rock Baptist Church in Berlin Borough to in-person services, a violation of state orders on limiting gatherings during the pandemic.
According to the younger Clark, the two pastors received the state summons from the Berlin Police Department on May 26, two days after the church reopened its doors following nine weeks of online-only services. Solid Rock hosted both a morning and evening service that Sunday.
The church’s reopening was in violation of Gov. Murphy’s executive order limiting in-person gatherings deemed non-essential to 10 people or less. Places of worship are currently not deemed essential by the state.
Although a tough decision, the church says its return to in-person services was made because of the many area residents who had a strong desire to once again practice their religion inside a church with other parishioners.
“Here’s the reality … This is a tough time for the Berlin and South Jersey area with the pressure and stress that COVID-19 is putting on everyone,” Clark said. “We’ve had business owners calling us struggling because of different things. We’ve had residents calling us that are suicidal and dealing with various struggles.
“Isolation is not normal and it’s not supposed to be prolonged,” the pastor added. :
“As a church, we are one of the hubs that does provide the opportunity to come together for a lot of people.”
The church had deliberated on the issue for weeks, according to Clark, and he believed opening on Memorial Day weekend would be a good choice for a variety of reasons.
“Knowing it’s Memorial Day weekend and the start of the Jersey Shore season, we know that with people going stir crazy that there was more pressure on the governor to open things up,” Clark explained. “And equally as important, it’s Memorial Day weekend and we’re an incredibly patriotic church — not to flatter ourselves. We wanted to honor those paying the ultimate price that gave us our constitution, liberty and freedom.
“What better Sunday is there to exercise our First Amendment rights than the Sunday before Memorial Day?”
Clark said it was decided that the church would be able to safely hold services for residents. The entire church was disinfected the day before, and only 25 percent of the church’s seating was available. Residents had to make reservations. Parking lots and church seating adhered to social distancing guidelines for individuals or families.
All churchgoers were instructed to wear masks and were not admitted if their temperature, taken via touchless thermometer at the front of the church, was above 100.4 degrees. Clark also said the church’s air filtration system, which consists of four air scrubbers, cleans the air roughly every three hours.
Moving forward, Clark and the Bible Baptist Church in Clementon plan to jointly sue the state over its current limitations on places of worship.
“What we want is our right to have church with groups of 10 or more people without having the governor clamp down on us in any way as a church,” Clark noted. “That will go to federal court and our plan is to win.”
In the meantime, Solid Rock plans to continue hosting in-person services, with one in the morning at 10 a.m. and another at 5:30 p.m. There will also be an 8 a.m.senior service on Sunday for those 60 and older who want to attend a smaller gathering.
The church will continue online services on its website.
In the event that an in-person attendee tests positive, Clark said the church would take “remedial steps” to address the problem, such as additional cleaning of the church and quarantining of that individual. But Clark added that such instances should not necessitate shutting down the church.
“The Walmarts, the ShopRites, the Home Depots are still open;” Clark argued. “We help people with family, emotional, mental, spiritual problems. We are a spiritual hospital and we seek to help people that are struggling with the many problems everyone might be facing right now.”
As of deadline, Berlin Borough had reported 43 positive COVID-19 tests and nine deaths. Camden County reported 6,429 positives, with 313 deaths. According to the county, approximately 74 percent of deaths were in long-term care facilities.