On June 11, San Jose Inside published an open letter from Keith Crosby, the lead pastor of Hillside Church, to several local and state officials regarding the continued moratorium on religious gatherings in light of COVID-10. While Pastor Crosby raised important and difficult questions regarding the state and county’s handling of the pandemic and the subsequent shelter-in-place order, his letter reflects a stance that is, to say the least, unbecoming of a faith leader with influence in our community.
In the published piece, as well as a more inflammatory version of the letter dated June 9, which cc’d a slew of local and state politicians and news outlets, Pastor Crosby began by decrying the “killing (some would say murder) of George Floyd.”
“Events such as these,” Crosby argued, “have collateral effects.”
While one might assume Crosby was preparing to follow suit with faith leader across the country and use the horror of Floyd’s murder as a salvo for a much-needed conversation about systemic racism in the modern U.S., his letter took a disconcerting turn.
Addressing public officials, Crosby wrote, “Due to circumstances beyond your control, the protest gathering and riots in California, San Jose, and across the nation have nullified the efficacy of the various COVID-19 countermeasures … I suppose it is not your fault. It is the result of the situation on the ground.”
Crosby went on to say that “the legitimate protestors” and “rioters” (he closely associates the two) have rendered the COVID-19 countermeasure “irretrievably compromised.”
The remainder of the letter offered a plea for officials to lift restrictions on religious gatherings by July 1 so that the pastor and other institutions may return to in-person interactions with their congregations.
There are several alarming elements in the pastor’s letter (both the June 11 and June 9 versions) including his use of scare quotes to refer to “science” (see the June 9 letter), a selective invocation of biblical quotes to justify his critique of a secular office, a cavalier conflation of “the legitimate protestors” and “rioters” (again, see the June 9 letter), his failure to recognize that it was the militarized SJPD who shirked social distancing protocols and mask-wearing (not protestors), his complete omission of well-documented excessive use of force by officer’s against peaceful protestors, and so on.
While I leave it to others to address these issues, I would like to narrow in on the pastor’s primary justification for the reopening of his church for public gatherings. In his impassion letter, Crosby states that his church (and many others like it) provides “essential, psychological, and spiritual grounding to people.”
As a lifelong San Josean, baptized at Saint Christopher Church and raised in the warm embrace of the nondenominational Cornerstone Community Church, I would not question the value of the services that the pastor provides—not just his for congregation—but the community at large.
That being said, the South Bay possess a rich history of faith leaders using their positions of influence to bring communities together and champion causes for social justice. Consider the well-known case of Father Donald McDonnell of Our Lady of Guadalupe and his work with Cesar Chavez on San Jose’s East Side.
I found Crosby’s opportunistic reference to Floyd’s murder and his description of protestors to be a betrayal of this history. Pastor Crosby’s use of the pulpit (albeit it a virtual one) is disheartening at best and divisive at worst.
Dr. Nicholas Barron teaches anthropology at Mission College and Gavilan College. He was born and raised in San Jose. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches and letters to [email protected].