URBANDALE, Iowa – On Friday afternoon, Vice President Mike Pence visited with nine faith leaders during his one day trip to Iowa at Westkirk Presbyterian Church.
Pence was accompanied by Gov. Kim Reynolds, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst, U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.
Pence arrived shortly before 1:00 pm after about an hour’s delay leaving Andrews Air Force Base in Air Force 2. One of Pence’s staff members tested positive for COVID-19, after testing negative the day before, and had exposed six additional staffers on the plane who deplaned and later tested negative.
A senior administration official said the person who tested positive was not on the plane and was not scheduled to be on the trip. The official also stated that the staffer was not in contact with the president recently, but did not share what level of contact the vice president had.
Reynolds and Col. Mark Chidley, commander for the 132nd Fighter Wing of the Iowa Air National Guard, greeted the Pence upon his arrival in Des Moines.
Upon arriving at the church, Pastor Michael Mudlaff, the senior pastor at Westkirk Presbyterian Church, greeted the vice president.
“This is the first time I’ve been back in church – for some time,” Pence said. “And I’ve never felt more strongly. And it is good to be in the House of the Lord.”
“It’s one of the things that the President and I have been more inspired by is the way that people of faith have not only carried our nation in prayer during these challenging days, but the way communities of faith have never relented in their ministry, reaching out to the vulnerable,” the vice president added.
He thanked churches for their efforts during the pandemic.
“Even though your pews have been empty, your work has been full, and I couldn’t be more grateful to you,” Pence said.
He remarked at how the nation’s testing capacity has expanded.
“We believe, by early next week, we’ll have gone from, when I started this job (leading the Coronavirus Task Force), 8,000 tests that have been done and now, thanks to the President’s leadership and the great partnership of governors like Governor Reynolds, now, early next week, we expect to reach 8 million tests having been done around the country. And we’ll continue to expand,” Pence said.
He added that he looked forward to hearing about everyone’s plans for reopening their places of worship and taking them back to the White House so “that we help strengthen the foundations of this country.”
Pence mentioned that he understood how difficult being unable to meet physically has been on people of faith.
“But it’s so important that, as we reopen America, that we — that we help to strengthen the foundation of this country as well. You know, I think of that verse that says, don’t absent yourself from the assembly, as some are in the habit of doing. Well, we’ve all been required, because of social distancing, to absent ourselves of being able to gather — whether it be on Saturday or on Sunday or on a Wednesday night. And that’s been a burden. It’s been a source of heartache for people across the country,” he said.
“I know you never stopped. I know that’s what’s most inspiring. You kept being there for the people of your church or synagogue,” Pence added. “It’s made an incalculable difference to our nation seeing its way through troubled times.”
“By God’s grace, the faith of the American people – we’ll get through this, sooner rather than later we’ll get American working again, we’ll get America worshipping again,” Pence concluded.
Reynolds also praised the work of local faith leaders during the pandemic.
“Whether it’s drive-in churches, worshiping online or reaching out to those in need – it’s been incredible to see day in day out,” she said.
Grassley also added that it had been six weeks since he set foot in church, and doing so brings comfort. He said that the response to the pandemic is unprecedented as the economy has never been shut down as it has before.
“We have to collectively help them, we’ve got to individually help them. And that’s what we are doing,” he said. “Government’s got a role; we all have a role.”
Ernst added, “We are absolutely going to pull through this together, not without bumps and bruises along the way.”
Mudlaff led off faith leaders discussing how they are approaching reopening now that the governor lifted restrictions for gatherings of more than ten people for religious purposes.
He said Westkirk Presbyterian Church plans to utilize a booking system to gauge how many plan to attend in person as opposed to viewing the service online.
They plan to start with one service on May 31 that will allow a slow transition and give them time to clean and sanitize.
Those who attend will be required to wear masks. “Nobody likes it. However, this kind of restriction is not conducive to relationships along with singing or responding in worship,” Mudlaff said, adding he hopes that will become optional soon.
“The longer this goes on, the longer this goes, the concern is we will be producing more viewers but fewer active members of the church community,” he added.
Rabbi David Kaufman of Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Des Moines said more testing, vaccine, antibody testing probably needed before they saw a return to normal worship.
“We are pretty much in a position of uniformly believing that it’s too early to return to personal worship. It’s inadvisable at the moment, especially with rising case counts in the communities in which most of our congregations are across the state,” he said.
Kaufmann added that his congregation has a significant number of members who are over the age of 70, and people who have medical problems or have recently recovered from them.
Pastor Monte Knudson of Faith Christian Outreach Church in Mount Pleasant also said that his church would resume physical worship services on May 17. He said they streamed services before the pandemic, but his people miss personal contact. They began to offer drive-in services.
He said the challenge was to reopen but do so in a safe way. On May 17, they will offer a worship service only and keep families in groups and isolated from others. On May 31, they plan to offer Sunday school for children once again.
Pastor Brad Sherman of Solid Rock Christian Church in Coralville praised Reynolds for not imposing a one-size-fits-all set of restrictions. He also praised President Donald Trump for resisting “the urge to tyranny” by pushing “much of the decision making back to the states which is constitutionally where it belongs.”
Bob Vander Plaats and Greg Baker of The FAMiLY Leader were also present along with Bishop William Joensen of the Diocese of Des Moines, Pastor Terry Amann of the Church of the Way in Des Moines, and Dr. Calvin Swan, the Superintendent Emeritus of the Central District of the Evangelical Free Church of America.
Before concluding, Pence thanked the faith leaders for their prayers and promised to protect religious liberty.
“The constitution is not suspended in times of crisis, and I promise you we are going to continue to stand by the religious liberty of every American until this is over and then beyond,” he said.
Pence finished his day in the Des Moines Metro at Hy-Vee’s headquarters in West Des Moines to participate in a roundtable discussing securing the nation’s food supply. He was joined by Ernst, Grassley, and Perdue, as well as the leadership of HyVee, Kroeger, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, Mountaire Farms, and the American Farm Bureau. He departed Des Moines late Friday afternoon.
Rob Crilly, with The Washington Examiner, contributed to this report.