For several years, Teresa Ashby’s husband, Brent Nixon, has been a devoted member of Crossroads Community Church in Fitchburg. Even during the pandemic, he attended Sunday services in person, donning a mask and social distancing in keeping with public health advice.
But not all of the worshippers were as conscientious as Nixon. Now Ashby’s 68-year-old husband — who never liked going to the doctor — is hooked to a ventilator in the intensive care unit at Heywood Hospital with COVID-19 pneumonia, she said. He was admitted Sunday, after his blood oxygen level plummeted. Ashby, 52, a former home care aide, fears he was sickened at Crossroads, one of nearly 150 cases now traced to services and events at the church.
“I’ve already collapsed over this. My nerves are shot,” said Ashby, of Orange, who suspects she’s now sick with COVID-19, too. “As the church would say, I’m trying to be angry and sin not, and not go after them, but I’m so angry.”
As the pandemic has worn on, churches across the country have emerged as a major source of coronavirus infections. Now Crossroads, a popular Pentecostal church, is one epicenter of an escalating outbreak in Fitchburg.
The Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards first investigated complaints about the church’s compliance with COVID-19 health protocols in late September, according to the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development. The department reviewed a copy of the church’s COVID-19 safety plan, found no discrepancies, and closed the case on Oct. 2.
But additional complaints about safety violations prompted the department to issue a written warning to Crossroads on Oct. 21, with an order to take corrective actions. The church agreed to close to make improvements. No fines were imposed.
In addition to the nearly 150 infections linked to Crossroads, the Fitchburg Board of Health has identified more than 40 COVID-19 cases tied to local hockey leagues, according to Stephen Curry, the city’s director of public health. In a statement released Saturday, Curry said many of the cases associated with the outbreaks at the church and hockey programs are believed to be asymptomatic, meaning infected residents may have unwittingly spread the virus to others.
Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale said the city is working closely with Crossroads and the state Department of Public Health to curb the spread of the virus through testing and contact tracing. On Tuesday, the city offered free COVID-19 testing to residents, which Crossroads members were encouraged to take. DiNatale said officials from the city and Department of Public Health would meet with church leaders this week to discuss the measures Crossroads needs to take to ensure it can safely reopen, including masking requirements and occupancy limits.
“We’re trying to collaborate and get it to a point where we can arrest this outbreak and reverse it and bring it back to where we were a couple of weeks ago,” DiNatale said.
Two weeks ago, on Oct. 21, Crossroads' lead pastor Bryan Tomes notified congregants in an e-mail that the church was “taking extra cautionary steps" to clean and sanitize church facilities, citing the rise of COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts. (Tomes did not return multiple requests for comment for this story.) Then, two days later, in another e-mail to the congregation, Tomes acknowledged “multiple people from Crossroads” had tested positive for the virus. In-person gatherings at the church were canceled on Oct. 25 and Nov. 1.
“You and your family are so important to us and we are continually praying for the health and wealth of each one of you,” Tomes said in his Oct. 23 e-mail. “We believe that we will not be overcome but will come out on the other side victorious in the Mighty Name of Jesus.”
Jennifer Sharpe, 55, who lives in Lunenburg and joined Crossroads in February, contends that before the Oct. 21 e-mail, Tomes failed to take the threat of coronavirus seriously. Sharpe, who has an autoimmune disease and whose son has Down syndrome, said she had been in contact with Tomes to communicate her concerns when rumors first surfaced of a cluster of cases linked to the church.
“The pastor believes if you pray over it, COVID’s not going to hit the church,” Sharpe said. “Well, that didn’t go so well, now did it?”
Tomes, who hails from Lexington, joined Crossroads, then known as the Fitchburg Assembly of God, 15 years ago, according to the Sentinel and Enterprise. In a video posted March 31 on the church’s Facebook page, Tomes, unmasked and seated closely with nine unmasked members of the Crossroads staff, accuses the media of “fear-mongering" about the virus. He also tells worshippers if they apply oil over the doorposts of their homes, God would “honor our action” and the “Angel of Death will go right over it.”
Photos and videos of services and programs on Crossroads’ Facebook page show little to no distancing or mask-wearing among worshippers, pastors, choir members and musicians inside the church. During the first two weeks of October, Crossroads hosted Virginia-based evangelist Ted Shuttlesworth and his son, Ted Jr., of Parkland, Fla., for the church’s fall camp meeting, which appeared to take place indoors. In an Oct. 7 video, Shuttlesworth, a professed faith healer, prays over a woman seeking to have her hearing restored. Neither he, the woman, nor any of the several worshippers seen in the video are wearing masks.
DiNatale said he did not know if the camp meeting was behind the outbreak, noting that Sunday services at Crossroads are also “very well-attended.” Although the photos he saw on Facebook of the church’s recent events concerned him, DiNatale said the city is not sanctioning Crossroads at this time for failing to adhere to public health guidelines.
President Trump deemed houses of worship to be essential services in the spring. But under the state’s safety standards, they are still required to operate at reduced capacity, and all staffers and worshippers must wear face coverings, with exceptions for celebrants conducting services, as long as they do so at a distance.
“We’re talking about someone’s faith and it’s not always black and white,” DiNatale said. “There are certain constitutional rights that exist here that we have to be very careful in dealing with.”
Ashby’s husband did not participate in the camp meeting, which concluded on Oct. 16. The last time Nixon, a retired bus driver, went to church was Sunday, Oct. 18. But he soon fell ill, Ashby said, with aches, a cough, and fever. By Oct. 27, Ashby said, “he was completely bedridden.” None of the pastors at Crossroads has reached out to her about her husband’s condition, she said.
To stem the surge of coronavirus infections in Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker announced new restrictions Monday, including a stricter face-covering mandate requiring anyone over the age of 5 to wear a mask in public. New daily cases have increased by 300 percent since early September, according to Baker. As of Thursday, the city of Fitchburg has confirmed 1,220 cases of coronavirus since March 1, and 87 residents have died. The city has 203 active cases under isolation orders.
The revelations about the church’s COVID-19 cluster have shattered Sharpe, who, along with two other churchgoers, has volunteered to buy groceries and cook meals for families affected by the outbreak — with no guidance or assistance from Crossroads.
“This is a church I was loving and my son loved it, and I feel so betrayed. I do not think I can trust another organized church again," she said through tears. “Because the idea of people in their homes, sick and suffering, scared because they’re isolated ... devastates me. No one should feel that way.”