By Stephen Bryen*
The state slogan reads, Virginia is for Lovers. But not on Chincoteague Island. Chincoteague Island is a vacation island on the Virginia shore, just south of Ocean City, Maryland. It is adjacent to Assateague Island, a 37 mile-long nature preserve of which a part is in Virginia and a part in Maryland. It features a beautiful beach but no accommodations. But Chincoteague, an otherwise lower-middle class town, a bit run down, offers homes and apartments for rent and is only minutes from the Assateague beach that can be reached by car, motorbike or bicycle.
It is our favorite summer vacation spot. We have been visiting the town for years. Aside from the resort, Assateague is the home of wild ponies Some say the ponies got there when a Spanish galleon ran aground 300 years ago. Others say they are descendants of work animals of our colonial fore-bearers. But each year, to keep the herd manageable, the ponies are culled and some of them run across the shallow bay to Chincoteague where they are sold to families who will care for them.
There is a marvelous book for children called Misty of Chincoteague by Margaret Henry about the ponies.
But just recently, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic something bad happened on Chincoteague, something that tarnishes the island’s reputation among the people who visit there each year –a trade the island depends on.
The Governor of Virginia ordered that churches could not host more than 10 congregants at a time. To drive home his odious point, he made it a criminal offense punishable by a year in jail and a stiff fine. But, at the same time, he allowed big box stores like Walmart to operate without any limitation.
There were 16 people in the Lighthouse Fellowship Church on Chincoteague on Palm Sunday, but one of them was an undercover cop. After the service the undercover policeman went back to the Chincoteague Police Department, got a bunch of officers with masks and gloves, and went to the Lighthouse Fellowship Church and handed a citation to the young church pastor for defying Governor Ralph Northam’s edict.
Lighthouse Church that can seat almost 300 people. The 15 congregants and the undercover cop were all practicing social distancing. There wasn’t any threat to public health.
The Lighthouse Fellowship Church is in a run-down strip mall. It serves former drug addicts, prostitutes and the downtrodden supported by a tiny budget but a grand mission. For those who worship there, it is said the Church keeps them going –that it is all important. Its pastor, the Reverend Kevin Wilson, is a young guy trying to do good.
Now Pastor Wilson faces a year in jail and a fine of $2,500.
He is being defended by Liberty Counsel, a Christian ministry. Now the US Department of Justice has joined the case.For the Justice Department the issue is the First Amendment and its guarantee of freedom of religion and assembly.
Had the Lighthouse Fellowship Church been jam-packed and disregarded public health, then it would be right to conclude that it was causing harm to the community it served. But as that was not the case, it is appalling and unbelievable that some cops in Chincoteague felt free to hide an undercover agent in the church and punish the church, its pastor and, more importantly its congregants. One wonders what put up the police up to the deed?
Because Chincoteague is a small town, it is tempting to believe that they did not want the church helping the poor and downtrodden, any more than towns like to have soup kitchens or hostels for the homeless. If so, then were the police motivated by the City Council?
There is some circumstantial proof this may have been the case. Among the 16 folks in the church was a member of the city council. As the Eastern shore Post reported: “I would like to take this opportunity to apologize for a situation I found myself in a few weeks ago that went against our governor’s order,” Councilman Matthew Reed said during the April 16 town council workshop meeting. “I made a mistake. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Reed said, adding, “I went to what I thought was dinner with a couple of friends.”
Exactly how you could confuse a church service on Palm Sunday with having dinner with a couple of friends doesn’t pass the giggle test. But the groveling council member helps suggest that the reason for the police action may have been that the town council wanted to get rid of the Lighthouse Fellowship Church.
Let’s hope the church stays there for many years to come and that Reverend Wilson wins his case in court.
Let’s hope it isn’t too late.
*Stephen Bryen is the author of Security for Holy Places, now available at booksellers (Morgan James Publishing)