POLITICS

Florida Megachurch Cancels Services Amid Coronavirus Outbreak [UPDATE]

Pastor Guillermo Maldonado previously suggested that people who skipped services were caving to fears instead of believing in God's promises.

UPDATE: March 18 — King Jesus International Ministry has suspended public gatherings until further notice in response to “specific requests of the CDC,” a notice on the church’s website announced.

“Our faith remains in Jesus, and we know that these are times for faith and not fear, so we encourage you to spend time with God daily, read the Word and encourage one another,” the church said in its update. “Join us in praying for an end to this pandemic. We will resume normal weekend services at our campuses as soon as we are able.”

PREVIOUSLY:

South Florida pastor Guillermo Maldonado painted a stark picture for congregants at his megachurch last Sunday. People who had skipped services that day were caving in to fear of the new coronavirus, he suggested, while the folks who came to services were true and faithful believers. 

“I just want to tell you, I’m so proud of you, that you don’t let the devil and fear cripple you,” Maldonado told congregants gathered at King Jesus International Ministry, according to a video captured by the progressive website Right Wing Watch.  “Do you believe God would bring his people to his house to be contagious with the virus? Of course not ... in the presence of God, no virus can stand.”

As one of the most prominent Hispanic evangelical leaders in the nation, Maldonado’s challenge for faithful people to attend church amid a global pandemic carries weight. He is a televangelist and the lead pastor of a 7,000-seat megachurch in a Miami suburb that draws even more attendees at nine satellite campuses.

As of Tuesday evening, it doesn’t appear that the church is planning to cancel in-person worship, despite requests from local and federal authorities to avoid large gatherings to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

Guillermo Maldonado speaks to evangelical supporters in Miami on Jan. 3, 2020.
Guillermo Maldonado speaks to evangelical supporters in Miami on Jan. 3, 2020.

The pastor’s Sunday observations came as houses of worship across the country took unprecedented steps to curb the spread of COVID-19, the illness resulting from the novel coronavirus. Churches, mosques, synagogues and temples canceled services this weekend and moved meetings online in order to promote social distancing in their communities.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced new restrictions for bars, restaurants and universities on Tuesday. There are now over 190 cases of coronavirus in the state, the Miami Herald reported, including 35 cases tied to Miami-Dade County.

In Miami, Catholic Archbishop Thomas Wenski issued a memo last week stating that “given these extraordinary circumstances,” he is releasing Catholics from the obligation of going to Mass. On Monday, the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church has suspended worship through the end of March.

Before Sunday’s meeting, Maldonado used social media to urge his congregants to come to church in person on March 15, the Miami Herald reports. At least two assistant leaders also echoed that call. 

“We will be meeting because now more than ever God is empowering his church to show the world the power of Jesus Christ,” Pastor Frank Hechevarria said in an Instagram video Saturday.

King Jesus Church announced on Monday that it was taking extra steps to disinfect its buildings. It encouraged older adults or those with underlying medical conditions to stay at home and self-quarantine. And during a live-streamed “night of prayer and intercession against COVID-19,” Maldonado and his team read out recent guidelines suggested by President Donald Trump on how to prevent the virus from spreading — including by avoiding groups of over 10 people.

Maldonado said his church is paying attention and will follow what the authorities are suggesting. 

But as of Tuesday, there was no indication on the church’s website that upcoming Sunday services have been canceled. King Jesus International Ministry did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. The church’s online calendar also suggests that Sunday services will be going forward as planned.

On Tuesday afternoon, a receptionist who picked up the phone at the megachurch’s Miami campus told HuffPost that services will take place as scheduled on Sunday. 

“This is what the government is recommending,” Maldonado said on Monday about the president’s guidelines. “But now, let’s go back to what God is saying.”

“This world is in turmoil, in anxiety. The Bible says this, that we will not conform to this world,” he said, quoting a verse from the book of Romans.

He compared the spread of COVID-19 to stories of plagues in the Bible. Just as God saved the Jewish people from a plague afflicting the ancient Egyptians, God will exempt true believers from the new coronavirus, Maldonado said.

“If somebody says, ‘I’m Christian and I have the virus,’ again, where is your faith?” he said. “Do you believe the promises?”  

Guillermo Maldonado (left) and other evangelical leaders pray for President Donald Trump at an evangelical rally in Miami on
Guillermo Maldonado (left) and other evangelical leaders pray for President Donald Trump at an evangelical rally in Miami on Jan. 3, 2020.

This teaching ― that God guarantees health, wealth and blessings to true believers and that these things are signs of God’s favor ― is often referred to as the “prosperity gospel.”  While it has been criticized as heresy in many branches of American Christianity, it has attracted some members of Trump’s inner circle. The president’s spiritual adviser, Paula White, is widely considered to be a proponent of prosperity gospel. 

In January, Trump paid a visit to Maldonado’s church to rally his evangelical base. In the days leading up to the visit, Maldonado sought to reassure undocumented members of his congregation that they wouldn’t risk deportation by coming to see the president. 

“I ask you: Do you think I would do something where I would endanger my people? I’m not that dumb,” the pastor said in December.

Keep up with the latest updates on the coronavirus at our live blog.