A Tulsa, Oklahoma, mega-church canceled a “Friendsgiving” event, for which it had initially encouraged members to bring a neighbor and had sparked outrage on social media, instead deciding to give out boxed meals to those in need amid rising Covid-19 cases in the state.
In a statement to NBC News, the church said it was not holding the annual Friendsgiving, although it was not immediately clear when the decision to change the event was made. The church’s calendar still had a “Friendsgiving” event listed and local reports said Victory Church’s Facebook had recently advertised the event.
As of Sunday afternoon, NBC News did not see a post advertising “Friendsgiving” event on the church’s Facebook page. It was unclear if it had been changed or removed.
“We did not have the Friendsgiving event today that we do every year. This year we changed it up and gave away boxed meals with turkeys, hams, and dry goods for those in need to take home and prepare for their families,” Daniel Henshaw, director of operations for Victory Church said in an email to NBC News.
Henshaw said this year alone the church has given out more than 13 million meals.
“Those in our community who rely on us the most always know they can find help here at Victory,” Henshaw said.
In a separate statement, Henshaw said the church was still holding services this weekend “in accordance with the guidelines of operating at 50% capacity of our sanctuary, signage for social distancing and mask, extra cleaning and disinfecting of our facilities, and hand sanitizing stations throughout.”
“As a church in our community, we are here to serve those who choose to walk in our doors, but we also offer our services online for those members or families that choose to watch from home,” Henshaw said.
Victory Church has recently come under fire for its massive indoor events, with some people tweeting the church “should be ashamed.”
“You should be ashamed of yourselves. People are going to die because you’ve prioritized making money at your little Jesus concerts over the lives of people in a global pandemic,” one person tweeted, along with a photo of an event at the church.
Photos of the church’s recent events, including a concert on Tuesday where an estimated 2,500 people were in attendance, according to The Kansas City Star, posted to platforms like Twitter appear to show hundreds of people, tightly packed in the building, without masks or face coverings.
Local rules in Tulsa require that gatherings with 500 or more attendees need to submit a Covid-19 safety plan for approval to the Tulsa Health Department two weeks in advance of the event.
“I understand we’re all trying to do our part. We are, as a church, but we are a church. We’re not going to reject people and push people out because they take their mask off,” Victory Church’s pastor Paul Daugherty toldNBC News affiliate KJRH of the concert.
As of Saturday, there were just under 5,000 active cases of Covid-19 in Tulsa County, according to the Tulsa Health Department. There were 31,413 active cases state-wide in Oklahoma as of Saturday, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
This month, Tulsa has reported some of its highest daily case totals since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the Star.
I see @victorytulsa holding gatherings like this & they absolutely need to be called out for conducting events (non-church services at that) that fly in the face of public health. People will die as a result of this concert. Pastor @PaulDaugherty, you do understand that, correct? pic.twitter.com/ZUHjamVNDn
— 🔥 Oklahoma behaved lawlessly for 113 years 🔥 (@AC_NoChill) November 19, 2020
With cases on the rise, angry Oklahomans took to social media to chastise the church for its actions.
“I am disappointed the measures for even basic safety standards are not being observed…I miss church and would love to be able to worship and feel close to others too..but I fear getting sick or possibly getting anyone else sick..God is not impressed with this. Its is a shame,” another wrote.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended that this Thanksgiving, Americans avoid travel if possible. If attending a Thanksgiving celebration, the CDC recommends attendees all wear masks and stay six feet apart. Additionally, the CDC recommends rather than congregating in person, those celebrating Thanksgiving do so virtually to prevent the spread of the virus.