Where Are the Shepherds? Masks, Vaccines, & Fear.. :: By Jennifer Laufenberg

Where Are the Shepherds? Masks, Vaccines, & Fear in the Bible Belt 

In mid-June, my husband and I headed east on I-70. This time, we were headed home for good. Having spent a rough three years in Colorado where my husband was a bivocational pastor, we were eager to return to the heart of the Bible Belt. Less than three months later, though, we are subject to mask mandates and fear-mongering from the local media on a scale that makes me wonder if we really left behind the blue state we fled.

Now that the Pfizer vaccine has FDA approval, the mandates in this small conservative corner of our state are rolling in and likely to affect my husband very soon. But where there’s a church on every corner and in between, there’s an eerie silence that has left me wondering—where are all the pastors?

The drumbeat is loud, like front-line Mardi Gras loud, and it began with the Delta surge. One afternoon, I drove past a local high school on the Saturday before school was set to begin. The parking lot was packed. Must be a fundraiser, I thought. To my horror, I later found out that it was a Back-to-School vaccine drive and school supply giveaway, a one-stop shop for parents and teens to blithely get an experimental jab, deemed as essential as backpacks, planners, and writing utensils. Sadly, a large majority of these teens and parents could probably be found in any one of the several churches on a Sunday and/or Wednesday evening, still reverenced church days down here.

I pass many billboards advocating for vaccines and masks as well as church signs announcing Back-to-School service times and fall Bible studies. There’s a stalemate, an irony to this new neutral ground (as some Southerners call medians), where the church can condemn government control to forsake the assembling of the people (Hebrews 10:25). Yet, it refrains from warning against this vaccine, and in some instances, allows vaccine drives in the church parking lot. This is deeply disturbing. How many of these pastors have unapologetically preached against abortion, homosexuality, sex education, and the teaching of evolution to the exclusion of creationism? Yet now, on this vaccine—silence.

I had a taste of this silence during a recent incident my mother and I had at a large retail store. On our way, my seventy-two-year-old mother thanked me for driving. Why? Since the “pandemic,” she has largely shut herself in and no longer likes to go too far from her home. While in this store, neither of us wore masks, though virtually everyone else was dutifully wearing one. The fact that we were not wearing one didn’t seem to bother the three workers we asked for help or the others we passed. Not one person stopped us or asked us to wear one. At the self-checkout lane, I put in the code for my apples and noticed that they rang up ten cents cheaper than advertised.

“I rang these up incorrectly,” I said to the cashier on duty. “Could you please help me?”

Keep in mind that we had already been in this self-checkout area for several minutes. The cashier knew that we were not wearing masks and had said nothing. However, that quickly changed.

When I asked for help, this woman blew up at me. She started shouting at me because I was not wearing a mask and because now she had to help me. Then, she pointed off to the side of the register and ordered my mother and me to stand “over there” so she could come over and help. Like two lepers, my mother—who is afraid to go less than four miles from home on her own—and I moved to the required spot to stand a safe distance from this masked woman.

There were people around. Not one person said a thing.

On the way home, as we passed the elementary school letting out, I thought about how preoccupied my mother has become with death. I shared the Gospel with her. “I know,” she said; “I say my prayers every night.”

At home, I apologized for the store incident. My mother brushed it aside in her characteristic way. She was happy that I now had her phone up and working, but I was still pained by the impact the experience could have on her. I’m sure she’ll wear a mask if we go out again. Or maybe she won’t go.

In a place where prayers are publicly said and then ended “In Jesus’s Name,” where youth pastors come to schools at lunchtime, where the FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) is a packed organization, and where one school district was warned by the ACLU for proselytizing, I cannot help but wonder why so many are silent as the state and local government trample civil liberties in the name of a virus in which the vast majority recover.

How can I square Gospel and pro-life billboards in our area with the silence on a vaccine that has been tested on aborted fetal cell lines and/or contains aborted fetal tissue, or how in one study, the mRNA vaccine induced 75% of pregnant women to miscarry in their first or second trimester? Have so many pastors preached empty words? Have so many eyes, ears, and minds been dulled?

I asked my husband if he thinks these pastors fear losing their tax-exempt status. “It’s nothing,” he said, referring to the amount saved. Perhaps those are simply the words of a small-church preacher who preached and wrote warning of this vaccine when he held the pulpit. An article by Jay Reeves on the silence among pastors in the Bible Belt cited a person who speculated that this silence may be rooted in fear.

Whatever may be the cause, I have been dismayed at those whom I would consider faithful believers unquestioningly taking this vaccine.

“My spouse is diabetic. There’s so little medicine he can take now, so there’s no choice.” Aren’t God’s ways infinite?

“I can’t get sick like this again.” But the Bible says that he who saves his life will lose it (Matthew 10:39). Have we forgotten that the body is the temple for the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17), that God will not be mocked? (Galatians 6:7).

“I’ve got to keep this job. It pays too well.” God promises to provide for us even more than He does the ravens and lilies (Luke 12:22-28).

I suppose it would be easy at this point to leverage Matthew 7:1-5. I should take the beam out of my eye first. There’s a cost to speaking up.

My husband maintains that silence and obedience start at the top. “The pastors are not speaking out,” he says.

I agree, but I also believe in free will. I’ve been the pastor’s wife, sitting and watching the congregation, not the one speaking from the pulpit.

This weekend, my husband plans to work on his religious exemption letter in anticipation of what’s to come. Each morning, I check the local news websites and conservative radio websites for a list of more mandates. Just the other day, I read that next month, Covid compliance officers trained in California will be at one of the larger festivals in town checking for attendees’ vaccination status or Covid negative test. Any fake IDs will be given to the FBI, according to the safety regulations. I shake my head. I have no interest in attending that kind of event. I am, though, interested in when … if, we will hear from these shepherds as the mandates continue.

And, it may be that all of this medical tyranny is a litmus test for pastors and believers. Paul warned about a “science falsely so called” (1 Timothy 6:20). Perhaps the decision we make to “follow the science” may say more about the condition of our heart than the religion or science we espouse.

O Lord of hosts, that judgest righteously, that triest the reins and the heart” (Jeremiah 11:20).