By JOHN FORTMEYER, CNNW publisher
SALEM — Organizers of a nightly worship outreach in Riverfront Park that began in June aim to continue the gatherings despite challenges created by both city and state regulations.
A lawsuit to assist the organizers may be in the works.
Under the title Salem Awakening 2020, the outreach began on Father’s Day, June 21, and is planned to continue from 6 to 8 nightly through Sept. 7. Sponsored by a group of local churches, the effort was launched by Pastor David Vital of East Salem Fellowship and his wife, Amanda. It has drawn up to between 200 and 300 people.
The group raised more than $17,000 for permits to meet at the park’s amphitheater, but city officials on July 8 revoked that permit and partially refunded the money. The meetings had gone 18 days without any issues from the city.
The Vitals say the city’s reasoning was that a city representative was needed to monitor the gatherings and make sure coronavirus restrictions were being followed, but that the city couldn’t afford to send one. Thus, the event can now not plug in its audio and other equipment to the city’s electric service. Instead, battery power is being utilized.
The event organizers offered to pay the city’s representative’s salary in addition to the $18,000 already paid for amphitheater use, but the city said no.
The organizers said they try to adhere to all COVID-19 regulations, including separating those attending by households and advising those present to wear masks.
The city told KPTV Channel 12 it has sought a solution, but noted that state guidelines require a social monitor or contract tracer for every 50 people in attendance.
But Vital said limitations on sound now mandated by the city mean people now tend to move in closer to hear the nightly program, which actually runs counter to social distancing efforts. “It goes against common sense,” she said.
In a weekly video chat with pastors July 23, Brad Dacus, president of the Christian legal rights agency Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) termed the city’s actions “outrageous.” Ray Hacke, a Salem lawyer affiliated with PJI, said he has sent a letter to the city demanding it reinstate the permits. If it doesn’t, PJI may take legal action.
Despite the revoked permit, Salem Awakening 2020 leaders said they will continue to meet at the amphitheater or occasionally at the south meadow area in the park. They told KPTV that the city has told them it can’t stop people from meeting outside. The amphitheater remains available on a first-come, first-basis to groups.
Vital said God put on her heart several months ago, toward the start of the virus shutdown, to just go to the park and perform worship music. Her older son joined her.
After a couple of weeks, she heard from other churches that wanted to join and were excited about it, leading to the group effort and prompting Vital to ask the city to reserve the Riverfront Park amphitheater for the entire summer.
“At first, the city said, that sounds like a concert. Not going to happen,” she recalled. But she reapplied.
Vital also felt a separate call to pray from Mother’s Day, May 10, through Father’s Day outside the Planned Parenthood facility in Salem, not only because of the loss of unborn life there, but also for a spiritual breakthrough in Salem. She had as many as 10 people eventually join her. It was at the very conclusion of that prayer effort that she got word that the city had granted the park permit; Vital considers the timing of that divinely ordained.
The outreach is timely, Vital shared in a video posting on Facebook: “It was mind-blowing how many people are hungry for outreach, for ministering to people who are hopeless right now, for witnessing, for just basking in worship, for community; we’ve all been so secluded lately.”
More than 15 area churches or ministries have enlisted so far in the effort. In addition to East Salem Fellowship, they are: Mehama Community Church, Bible Missionary Church, Faith Awakening Church, The River Church, Iglesia de Revelacion, For His Kingdom home church, Life Church, The Way Church, Lifeline Church, Joyful Sound Ministries, Jefferson Baptist Church, Redeemed Church, Solid Rock Church, Kingwood Bible Church and Rock Point Church of Newberg.
“We have a big job, a mission, to go out and preach the Gospel this summer like never before,” Vital said.