On Tuesday I went to what I thought was to be a socially distant press conference outside the Orange County Board of Supervisors’ building to plea for a return to the mask order.  We know that the numbers are continuing to rise in Orange County and that masks make a difference.  Unfortunately, our message was diluted, because even as the organizers had chosen a site that was distant from the “anti-maskers” it didn’t take long for them to mirror the very virus we fear, and infiltrate what we thought was safe space.

What I witnessed left me trembling and in tears.  I say this as someone who is not unfamiliar with hatred. Their jeers during my prayer, accusations that I was liar, or a fake pastor were not new insults. I’ve been called a witch, told I work for Satan, and that I’m luring my flock away from the true teaching before.  As a female pastor sexist comments are not unfamiliar, they are jabs that stings, but nothing new.  As an advocate for LGBT rights, Black Lives Matter, or my support of Muslims and varied faith traditions I have garnered criticism and mocking. I’ve learned to grow thick skin after years of working for justice in this county. My trembling and fear did not come from the cruel words hurled at me as I spoke.

My shock came in that despite having been in situations like this dozens of times I’ve never actually feared for my life. I’ve received threats before, phone calls, even the recipient of cursed name calling. But what I experienced was vitriolic hatred, a desire to hurt one another, not just a plea for ‘freedom” but an active threat to those of us who are standing asking for masks. To tell me that they think they have Corona virus and stand next to me, invading my personal space, with the intent to spread it saying my “mask won’t do any good” is terrifying. They brought me to tears with their cruelty, and I was heartsick seeing the children they included in their hateful actions and disrespectful speech.  I am shocked that they thought this was an appropriate way to get their message across by hijacking our press conference and threatening us with a virus that we are actively asking for protection from.  

I’m even more disheartened that these are the people the Board of Supervisors are listening to – not scientists, not doctors, not pastors like me who share a belief that our call is to care for the least of these among us and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  The Board of Supervisors should be focused on keeping us safe, should listen to facts, and quite frankly should care about our community’s health, safety and well-being.

But instead they are listening to the rants of people who would seek to will a lethal virus upon a pastor and others they did not know simply because we are asking to keep our community safe.  I tremble at the lack of humanity I witnessed and I pray that real leadership will emerge to care about this county and the people who live and work here.

Since this experience I’ve reflected upon the resignation of the Orange County Health Officer Dr. Quick due to the threats upon her family and I know that what I witnessed was only a fraction of what was inflicted upon her.  My prayers are with her, I shudder at what she must have experienced, still shaken by what I witnessed directed at me.  I cannot help but wonder why the OC Board of Supervisors did not take note when she shared her fears, but rather, after her resignation took a hands off approach and permitted the mask mandate to be lifted, despite hundreds of phone calls and emails that support the mask mandate.  Why give power to a group that seeks to terrorize our community in general and an official of the county specifically, as well as people like me who simply want an opportunity to have our voices be heard?

I feel traumatized. I’m afraid of what they may have passed to me and the viral hatred they most certainly spread. But I also know we cannot let hate mongers dictate our lives and believe that we must respond to their vitriol with an even greater compassion for our community and commitment to care for the most vulnerable among us.

Orange County we must do better. We owe it to ourselves, our neighbors: our brothers and sisters.

Rev. Dr. Sarah Halverson-Cano is the pastor at Fairview Community Church in Costa Mesa and the president of the Newport-Mesa-Irvine Interfaith Council.  She is also on the board of CLUE: Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice.  Her breadth of work in seeking justice in Orange County is expansive covering advocacy for the LGBT community, interfaith, economic justice and women’s rights.

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