A sign reads “Practice Social Distancing” on Myers Quad in Athens, Georgia, on Saturday, August 15, 2020. Freshman students continue to move into their dorms at the University of Georgia, in Athens, Georgia amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo/Sophie Yaeger/syaeger@randb.com)

Photos and videos circulated across social media on Aug. 18 of groups of over 50 students gathered in Myers Quad — some with masks on, others without. 

It was later revealed that the majority of students in attendance were there for an event hosted by various religious organizations on campus. 

The Navigators, a Christian ministry, hosted a “Chicken & Games” eventat 6 p.m. on Myers Quad. The ministry offered free Chick-fil-A sandwiches and games such as Frisbee and Spikeball. Their Instagram page also told students to bring a mask. 

The Baptist Collegiate Ministry, an on-campus ministry located on South Lumpkin Street, hosted a movie night at 9 p.m. The ministry also hosted a “Move-in Tailgate” on Aug. 15 and 17 on the front lawn of their building. 

CRU at UGA, another local religious organization, was reported to have hosted an event on Myers Quad that day as well, however CRU did not respond to The Red & Black about this claim. 

Justin Xu, a second year economics major, wrote and posted an open letter to these organizations, criticizing them for their “reckless and frankly disgusting” behavior. 

“As a Christian myself, I’m even more disappointed with what my beliefs have now become associated with. Jesus called us to be the salt and light of the earth. He called us to follow His perfect example,” Xu said in his letter to the local ministries. “He called us to demonstrate His love to those around us. Consider for a second if hosting your event was even remotely theologically coherent.”

Xu said he posted the letter and photos of the Myers Quad event to hold the ministries accountable for what he perceived as “hypocrisy.” 

BCM lead pastor Jerry Johnson said BCM wanted to bring the sense of community back to students while also adhering to the university’s COVID-19 guidelines. Johnson said there were other organizations there but BCM’s event did not begin until 9 p.m. 

Johnson said he individually went up to groups of students sitting during the movie and asked them to put their mask on. Johnson also said BCM handed out individually packaged food and drinks as well as sanitizer. 

As for the masses of people playing sports or gathering before 9 p.m., Johnson said the majority of those students did not have masks on but were not part of their ministry or event. 

“The bottom line is that none of us have been through a pandemic before and we're all learning. We'll make mistakes along the way and if we made mistakes I apologize for that but I really do,” Johnson said. “But I'm sure that we had covered all of those things that the university had asked for student groups to have as guidelines.”

The Navigators ministry said their vision is to help students at UGA develop a “meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ and one another,” according to a statement from The Navigators to The Red & Black. The event on Aug. 18 was an attempt to do that and connect with new students while also adhering to social distancing guidelines, according to the statement.

UGA’s COVID-19 guidelines for student organizations encourage all organizations to host meetings online, “especially when social distancing cannot take place.”

For larger events, the guidelines state the organization should tailor experiences and services to accommodate social distancing practices, including using larger venues and open-air spaces. The guidelines also suggest using  detailed signage and individually packaged food,vendor-distributed or catered food.

Balancing community, COVID-19

Justin Xu believes the event should’ve never taken place, regardless of the attempted precautions or vision behind the event, and UGA student Isaac Phillips agrees.

Phillips, a senior psychology major, said he questions how the organizations were allowed to gather with so many people. He said on campus, the rules and regulations are “strict” while off-campus events hosted by these ministries are “loosely monitored.”

However, Nate Thomas, a member of BCM for the last four years, said he attended the Myers Quad event. 

“Honestly it was a really good event, being at UGA is such a blessing and we wanted to share that fellowship and joy with others during such hard times due to the pandemic,” Thomas, a senior marketing manager, said. 

Thomas said he hurts for the freshmen coming onto campus this semester with COVID-19 changing so many “normal” campus traditions. Despite the criticism BCM received for the event, he said the ministry wanted to share the “love of Christ” with freshmen but safely which is why they chose an outdoor, large setting. 

Now days after the Aug. 18 event, Phillips still believes the event was a mistake and may contribute to the rise in cases at the UGA community. 

“As a Christian, I believe we should do our best to protect the vulnerable in our society,” Phillips said. “This event, these ministries failed to do that.”

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