CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- Leaders at a Chesterfield church disputed claims the house of worship was violating Executive Order 55 that prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people last Sunday.
Officials with Mount Gilead Full Gospel International Ministries released a statement Saturday to "correct a few presumptions and clear up any misunderstanding..."
"Our worship services have been suspended to the public since Sunday, March 22. We are only live-streaming our services, and at no point since this time have '60 to 80 people' been in our worship service," the statement reads. "We strive to provide a live-stream experience that ushers in the presence of God and we have relied exclusively on our staff and essential personnel to carry out this ministry assignment. We practice social distancing and have other measures in place to keep those serving safe during our live-stream."
Church leaders said they believed paid staff and volunteers not in the sanctuary "did not count toward the 10-person gathering restriction."
"After we received a warning on Sunday, April 19, we shifted immediately and reduced our team down to no more than 10 individuals at any one time in our 62,000-square-foot facility during our service times on Wednesdays and Sunday," the statement continues. "This adjustment was in place for our live-stream service on Wednesday, April 22 and will be in place for all subsequent live-stream service times. This requires a portion of our staff who aren’t involved with the production of our services to leave the campus during our live-stream."
Chesterfield Police Chief Jeffrey Katz issued the warning to the bishop after between 60 and 80 people were inside the North Chesterfield church during the Sunday, April 19 service, according to a Chesterfield Police investigation.
Church members, according to police, attempted to hide the fact that so many people were in the building by having some members shuttled in from nearby parking lots and refusing police entry in the house of worship.
“I am sensitive to the reality that prayer and fellowship is particularly important and comforting during these disconcerting times. Nevertheless, in-person gatherings of this nature have been lawfully and temporarily prohibited to minimize the risk of contagion of COVID-19,” Chief Katz wrote in a letter to Bishop Robertson. “ In deference to the immense respect I have for you, your institution, and the positive role and example you fulfill in our community, I have elected to exercise discretion in not pursuing charges at this time. Notwithstanding this decision, I must share with you that the overt efforts undertaken to subvert detection of this violation — including, but not limited to, off-site parking/ shuttling of parishioners, a sign indicating the cancelation of services, and Minister Glenn's denial of our investigative officers' entry into your sanctuary — is disheartening and disappointing.”
Chief Katz said the decision to let the church off with a warning could change if the church continues to violate the governor’s order.
Earlier this month, New Deliverance Evangelistic Church Bishop Gerald Glenn died of complications from COVID-19. Glenn tested positive for the virus days after he led a Sunday church service. That service took place one day before the state officially banned gatherings of 10 or more people, but after state officials urged Virginians to practice social distancing.