Faith and physical distancing collide in Aylmer, Ont.
AYLMER, ONT. -- A church community in Aylmer, Ont. may defy provincial orders on physical distancing this coming Sunday, but the Church of God is hopeful it does not have to.
As the congregation ponders its decision, local police are saying charges will be laid if Ontario’s emergency order is not followed.
The pastor of the Church of God, Henry Hildebrandt, tells CTV News his congregation is suffering amid restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“We cannot function without being able to see one another from time to time, and wave at each other and smile at each other.”
In an attempt to keep his congregation together, last Sunday, April 19, Hildebrandt led a service from a portable platform placed in front of the doors of his church. His parishioners were told to stay inside their parked vehicles - with the windows up - and listen to the service via a low wattage FM radio signal.
During the service, Aylmer police report 15 public complaints were made by residents worried it violated provincial orders for no more than five people to gather. In an aerial photo, taken by the church, vehicles were seen side-by-side.
Police attended the service, but did not lay charges.
However, Aylmer Police Chief Zvonko Horvat says the investigation into the occurrence continues, with discussions taking place between police and the Crown Attorney’s office.
As result he says the church, and its parishioners, are being warned that if they gather again action will be taken.
“Our last resort is to actually lay in charge. We don’t want to do that, but certainly, if we have to go down that road that’s a step or prepared to take it this point."
Both police and the church say talks are ongoing, with Hildebrandt reaffirming the relationship remains positive. However, he states his church community remains committed to exercising its faith - with reasonable distance from each other.
“Whether or not they will follow [with charges] I guess it’s up to them. It doesn’t change our resolve that we need one another.”
Hildebrandt's main public argument for continued worship on his church property is the commercial plazas nearby.
He points out vehicles going to the grocery store park next to each other, adding it’s the same situation at the liquor store.
“They are free to go buy liquor. That’s essential? And God is not essential? That is hard to explain any Christian in this country.”
Meanwhile, the broader implications of permitting the service are not being overlooked.
Hildebrandt calls the situation a threat to all faiths wishing to gather.
Horvat states the law must be applied.
“We’re concerned with what other organizations may do in the community. This is not just a single issue with a particular congregation; it could potentially lead to other issues in our community, specifically what if another congregation tries to do the same? What’s the next step in this thing?”
The church has retained a justice organization to aid in its efforts and says it is willing to hire off-duty Aylmer officers to attend the service.
UPDATE SATURDAY, APRIL 25: Hildebrandt tells CTV News the service on Sunday will go ahead as planned.