Of all the stories about Manitoba's experience with the COVID-19 pandemic, none is as unusual or confounding as the one authored by the Church of God Restoration.
In the last two weeks alone, this church has attended a public rally to protest against pandemic restrictions in Steinbach, a city in the grips of what is arguably the worst COVID-19 outbreak in Canada. A week later, it proudly held religious services that reportedly involved as many as 100 maskless worshippers.
For a church that hardly anyone knew about, the Church of God Restoration has certainly been the centre of attention. Without naming the church, Premier Brian Pallister called them "blockheads." In the wake of the protest, the church has been pilloried by local government officials and shunned by a coalition of churches in Steinbach.
Kyle Penner, an associate pastor at Steinbach's Grace Mennonite Church, even penned a commentary in the Free Press that urged all Manitobans, church-going or not, to ignore the Church of God Restoration. "Churches aren't death cults," Penner wrote.
Penner is not wrong to suggest we ignore a church that, even within the broad spectrum of evangelical denominations, is way out on the fringe. But a combination of factors makes this one church, at this point in the evolution of the pandemic, a significant threat that must be taken seriously.
The church and its membership are central players — to what extent, nobody is quite sure — in a COVID-19 outbreak that is, in terms of test positivity, arguably the worst in Canada and among the worst in the world. That threat is amplified when you realize the church appears, for all intents and purposes, to be beyond the reach or influence of any politician, police officer or Christian theologian.
Having said that, when you look at the history of the Church of God Restoration, it's easy to underestimate and possibly even ignore it.
The church was founded in the 1980s by Daniel Wilburn Layne, a former drug addict who found salvation and went on to found his own evangelical church. Without going into mind-numbing detail, Layne's church is based on a literal interpretation of the Book of Acts, otherwise known as the Acts of the Apostles or the fifth book of the New Testament, which recounts the founding of the Christian church and efforts to spread its message throughout the Roman Empire.
Over the years of its existence, it has faced allegations from former members, who claim to be the victims of shunning and abuse. The Church of God Restoration has rejected conventional medical treatment of its members in favour of spiritual healing, although it does currently support medical intervention for very young children.
This simple history does not, however, tell the whole story. Like many evangelical denominations in Canada and the United States, the Church of God Restoration has become increasingly political, adding elements of nationalism and libertarianism to its religious doctrine.
The confluence of these influences were evident at the Steinbach rally on Nov. 14, in which church members held signs with the quote "Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law," which is taken from the preamble to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This, church officials argue, gives it the right to reject "onerous restrictions" on constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.
It's nonsense, of course. Courts and constitutional scholars have determined the charter preamble cannot be used to interpret any law. Even if it did, the reference to "the supremacy of God" could very well be considered a violation of Section 2 of the charter, which protects freedom of conscience.
But that does not mean the Church of God Restoration should be ignored. The church's perverse legal interpretations are consistent with anti-restriction protests being held across Canada. Absent the religious fervour, these events and the groups that organize them subscribe to the misinformed idea that public health orders are somehow a violation of human or civil rights.
These groups do not represent the majority opinion on pandemic restrictions. But it's interesting how pervasive their arguments have become, and how they are used to bind together disparate groups of aggrieved citizens at a time when we need a unified response to the pandemic.
In U.S. President Donald Trump's political tent, Christian libertarians found community with Tea-Party Republicans and hardcore white nationalists. Although these constituencies are distinct from one another, they found common ground on opposition to pandemic restrictions and no doubt played a large role in helping Trump accumulate nearly 74 million votes in the recent election.
Canada, or Manitoba for that matter, has not faced a legitimate political threat from the same perverse political and religious consortium. But you can see the very earliest stages of a foundation take shape.
The Church of God Restoration cannot be solely blamed for Manitoba's horrendous COVID-19 outbreak. However, we can say with some surety that many Manitobans reject the advice of public health officials to take simple precautions against the spread of COVID-19.
Where those people find their inspiration is a bit of a mystery. However, the image of these churchgoers lustily rejecting masks and social distancing probably has played a part. And for that reason, they cannot be ignored.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.