GRANDVILLE, Mich. (WOOD) — It takes a critical eye to make sure information about coronavirus safety is coming from a legitimate source — but what about when it comes from the pulpit?
A sermon at Grandville’s Rock Urban Church on Chicago Drive SW near 28th Street is making the rounds on social media after the pastor gave his own take on the pandemic by sharing a controversial and discredited video that health experts say that could impact the effort to contain the pandemic.
The video comes from a YouTube account associated with far right-wing conspiracy group QAnon. It includes a buffet of virtually every discredited conspiracy theory currently making its way around the internet railing against mail-in voting, Black Lives Matter, antifa, George Soros and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“The country is being torn apart by the biggest political hoax and coordinated mass media disinformation campaign in living history — you may know it as COVID-19,” the narrator’s modulated voice says, backed by ominous music.
When the video pops up on Facebook, it comes with a warning banner about false content. The Associated Press fact-checkers devoted a long article to articulating the false claims is contains.
But at Rock Urban Church, Pastor Gary Petersen showed the video to his congregation via YouTube and in person.
“We will have church no matter what. This is our ninth Sunday together during COVID and I can’t think of anyone who got COVID-19 coming to church,” Petersen said in the sermon from July 5, which has since been removed from the church’s YouTube channel.
News 8 made multiple attempts to contact the pastor but no one wished to comment.
This is not the first time Petersen has been in the news. In 2014, he was ordered to pay back $4,000 to the Hudsonville church where he worked at the time after he was accused of using the church credit card for his own personal use on trips and at places like Red Lobster and Victoria’s Secret.
News 8 sent the video to the office of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, which provided a statement saying, “This misinformation damages the hard work and efforts of Michiganders and others throughout the country to slow the spread of a very real threat, and disrespects the thousands of people who lost their lives to COVID-19.”
After he showed the video, Petersen delivered a sermon that echoed many of its themes, although with a more biblical flavor.
“Yeah, if you take your dollar bill out you’ll see the all-seeing eye on the back of the bill — the Illuminati and who’s all a part of that,” Petersen told his congregation in a sermon often punctuated by shouts of “amen” from the crowd. “Wow, we are having our voices silenced by rioters and anarchists.”
He repeatedly referenced war and the apocalypse.
“Our universities are full of brainwashed young people today, our schools are full of brainwashed children,” he said.
Petersen also turned to the issue of Whitmer’s mandate to wear masks in public.
“You know what, I’m also greatly concerned about how good wearing a mask is for anyone in a health fashion,” Petersen said. “Casually, we are putting our tacit approval on them making us do things that we don’t have to do constitutionally speaking.”
Kent County Health Department Administrative Health Officer Adam London said that type of rhetoric is having an impact on the ability of scientists to get out a lucid message about health precautions.
“Misinformation and bad information is incredibly damaging right now,” London said. “Following these poorly informed conspiracy theories is only prolonging the suffering that we’re all going through.”
He said when the messages come from those with a platform of authority, it makes it that much more difficult.
“People put a lot of weight into hearing from people that they trust,” London said. “An opinion that is informed by bad science or by conspiracy theories, that really undermines our ability as a community to stop something like this.”
He said the community uniting behind measures like social distancing and mask wearing is the most powerful tool in stopping the spread.
“Following these poorly informed conspiracy theories is only prolonging the suffering that we’re all going through,” London said.
For the latest information on COVID-19 from the Kent County Health Department, visit its webpage at AccessKent.com.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story misspelled the pastor’s name. The correct spelling of his name is Gary Petersen. We have updated this story. We regret the error.