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Pastor beats COVID, returns to pulpit, but his Santa Rosa church remains unmasked

“For you, Lord, have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before the Lord in the land of the living!”

Ross Reinman called out that message to the congregation of Calvary Chapel The Rock, the Santa Rosa church he pastors, in his prayer to start off the 9:30 a.m. service last Sunday.

Reinman put particular emphasis on “land of the living,” and his words were greeted with thunderous applause and whoops of joy.

Pretty much everyone in attendance at The Rock knew Reinman had come perilously close to exiting the land of the living. As the pastor went on to recount in his “pre-sermon,” as his opening remarks are known, he had spent two weeks in a hospital ICU, stricken with a serious bout of COVID-19, then had labored through another month and a half of slow recovery.

“When I came home six weeks ago, I was a complete invalid,” Reinman said. “I couldn’t walk up one step. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t breathe on my own without oxygen, 24/7 I had that hose up my nose. … 24/7, I couldn’t feed myself, I couldn’t take care of myself.”

Reinman, a trim 61-year-old, said he lost 26 pounds while fighting off the virus. He is clearly on the mend. The week before his return, he reported, he had logged a 20-mile bike ride.

But Reinman has not developed an appetite for county-mandated public health restrictions.

“I have a renewed appreciation for the seriousness of the disease,” the pastor told his flock. “But nothing else has changed, because God’s truth doesn’t change. So in other words, God’s commands will always supersede and come over man’s mandates. Always. Even if I die, nothing in that regard changes.”

Wide latitude

Houses of worship have been granted wider latitude than many other group settings during the pandemic. In early February, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the state of California, striking down the state’s prohibition of indoor services in the wake of a devastating winter coronavirus surge. Six-foot distancing rules and singing bans also have fallen by the wayside.

But religious settings are not without restrictions. The California Department of Public Health issued guidance on June 18 requiring the use of face coverings for all workers and members of the public, in all public and workplace settings. That includes churches, which are supposed to keep extra masks on hand in case someone forgets theirs.

“God’s commands will always supersede and come over man’s mandates. Always. Even if I die, nothing in that regard changes.”

The rule is widely ignored at Calvary Chapel The Rock, if Sept. 5 was any indication. At least 200 people clustered in the sanctuary for the midmorning service that day. Perhaps 10-12 wore masks. There was no outdoor viewing option, though The Rock’s sermons — not the pre-sermons — are later posted online.

Masking can be seen as an individual decision, but it also appears to be unofficial policy at The Rock. Reinman remained vocally adamant about the mission of his church, and how it might be diminished by Sonoma County’s health order.

“A lot of people asked, well, now have you changed your mind?” he said. “Changed my mind about what? We were always about listening to the Lord, following his decrees and creating an environment here where his gospel and ministry can go forth. And that can’t happen where faces are all covered, and we’re 6 feet apart and we’re not allowed to sing.”

A few minutes later, Barbara Reinman, the pastor’s wife, came to the podium to say a few words. She, too, tested positive for the virus earlier in the summer, but wasn’t hit nearly as hard as Ross, a survivor of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Some have concerns

Some people associated with Calvary Chapel The Rock aren’t so glib about the church’s loose COVID protocols. Several current and former members reached out to The Press Democrat in July to note Reinman’s hospitalization, and to express concerns about the health of the congregation.

Those conversations resulted in a published story that the pastor specifically cited in his Sept. 5 sermon. He called the article a “hit piece” and said it was filled “with exaggerations, with falsehoods, with lies, slander.”

Neither Reinman, associate pastor Adam Wilson nor congregants returned phone calls or emails for this story.

At least two of the original Press Democrat sources are even more concerned now, considering the pastor’s compromised health.

“I think the biggest thing that bothers me, especially in light of what’s happened — not just with Ross but with the delta variant, and also the previous article and how he mentioned it — it’s that they know they’re doing something wrong, and they don’t care,” said one of those sources, who requested anonymity out of concern for damaging his relationships with people in the church.

“You have this, in his words, ‘renegade pastor’ who takes so much pride in going against the grain that he’s not willing to protect his congregation to go against this image.”

A representative of the city of Santa Rosa said its code enforcement team had received two complaints about The Rock since the mask mandate went into effect. (The church, in an industrial park off Piner Road, lies within city limits.) One of those came from a person who spoke to The Press Democrat; the other originated elsewhere.

“It’s that they know they’re doing something wrong, and they don’t care.”

Within The Rock’s pews, the enthusiastic reaction to Reinman’s sermon on Sept. 5 made it clear that his views are overwhelmingly popular. And churches remain a source of viral outbreaks.

Outbreaks in churches

In the last two months, 41 coronavirus cases have been associated with religious activities, according to Kate Pack, the county’s lead epidemiologist. Two of those were tied to church-based weddings, six to church camps. The others came from employees or attendees who considered a church service or large gathering the likely source of their exposure.

These numbers are likely underestimates, Pack added, because source information has been harder to glean lately due to contact-tracing surge protocols.

Certainly, not every worship leader is defiant, though. Adam Peacocke, a former pastor at City Life Fellowship in Santa Rosa who has been deeply involved with a coalition of about 60 local faith-based organizations who have worked together on disaster preparedness, and more recently on pandemic response, declined to discuss Calvary Chapel The Rock. But he spoke of other houses of worship that are COVID sticklers.

“I have talked to churches still not meeting in person since March, 2020. And not just one,” he said. “There were congregations just getting ready to come back in person when this recent spike with the delta variant started, and they put it off. A big section of our faith community, it’s not just that they’re trying not to break rules. They’re doing it out of a sense of what the congregation feels is safe.”

Peacocke said he would have been predisposed to follow the health rules if he were still preaching at City Life, noting there’s a substantial amount of sacred text urging Christians to heed civic leaders. But he acknowledged the difficult position pastors have found themselves in during the pandemic.

“As I talk to a lot of faith leaders, there’s such a variety of opinion and conviction within our community,” Peacocke said. “I’ve talked to pastors who have had people leave the congregation because they were being too cautious, and had others leave because they were not being cautious enough.”

The church source who spoke to The Press Democrat grew up in a Christian environment, and he doesn’t buy the idea that masks impede the ability to worship.

“It’s (BS),” he said. “In how I was raised, the church is within you. The lessons that come from that are within you. I think it’s an evangelical thing. It’s more about spreading the word and increasing numbers. The people at The Rock are largely good people. But Ross and the entire staff have cultivated an image, and a sense of loyalty, and it’s like stepping outside of that is going against God. It’s almost more a cult than a church.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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