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Controversial New Ipswich religious gathering to continue as planned after special meeting

  • A screenshot of the video of Tuesday night's special New Ipswich Select Board meeting. Courtesy photo—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 8/5/2020 12:28:38 PM

The Town of New Ipswich has no legal authority to enforce the state’s social distancing and quarantine policies, and as such, evangelist Torben Sondegaard’s traveling tent revival is expected to descend upon New Ipswich as planned in about a week’s time.

“The town has no authority in regulating the criteria that the state has provided for how the COVID-19 issue should handled,” Select Board Chair David Lage said at Tuesday night’s special meeting. “They put out the safeguards, the recommendations, and we just try and encourage people to implement them. There is no statutory authority that has been provided to the town or the Select Board via RSA or Governor Sununu’s executive orders.”

Sondergaard’s “Wake Up America - Big Tent Revival” is set for Aug. 14-23 at state representative Paul Somero’s Locke Road venue, bringing with it a slew of followers who’ve been traveling the country preaching the gospel and recruiting others to their cause. The state’s suggested 14-day quarantine period for travelers from outside New England and suggested public face covering guidelines are just that – suggested – organizer Lars Somero said Tuesday night.

“The state has said there is no mandatory mask wearing,” he said.

“All these are guidelines,” Marcus Rautiola said. “Having a gathering is not illegal.”

Sondergaard’s group made its previous stop in Des Plaines, Illinois, where COVID-19 cases recently spiked to a nearly 6 percent test positivity rate, due in no small part to large gatherings, experts told ABC-7 Chicago.

Select Board member John Veeser said the board has received calls and emails from people in many surrounding towns concerned about the possibility of a large group, potentially carrying COVID-19 coming to New Ipswich and then spreading out into surrounding towns.

“I think as Christians, your number one goal is do unto others as you’d want done to you,” Lage said. “Many people in this community are very concerned with this gathering and the potential of getting the COVID-19 virus…Some people on the flip side say there’s no such thing, I’m going to be immune to it, don’t worry about it. But it is a serious pandemic that’s going around and we want to know how and what you’re willing to do.”

When asked if those traveling with Sondergaard’s group would quarantine before venturing out into New Ipswich and the surrounding areas, and wear masks while in public to alleviate the community’s fears, Lars Somero said no, they probably wouldn’t.

Most audience members who spoke out with concerns said they were fine with whatever took place on the Locke Road property – large enough to host a 1,000-person music festival, let alone a religious revival of a few hundred – but wanted to ensure that travelers wouldn’t potentially be spreading the coronavirus when they entered the community to eat, shop and spread the gospel.

“This isn’t about their freedom of religion,” said Cecelia Long. “It’s about our freedoms too. Pray to Jesus at home. Have the tent thing when this is all over. Other groups are canceling and I find it reprehensible they won’t and wont even take precautions.”

Lars Somero said that New Ipswich was merely a home base for the traveling recruitment program, which might send a few out in town but spread their efforts around southern New Hampshire, to Manchester and surrounding towns.

“It’s about Jesus, and going out into the community and sharing the love with thy neighbors,” he said, adding that spreading the faith could be a positive thing during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We have two wars coming together. We have COVID and we then have Jesus and if we all stay home we don’t preach the gospel. We’re sharing love, we’re sharing Jesus. He’s life. When he died on the cross, he died so that all sickness would be rid of. As people are going out there they’re praying for people for the sickness to leave.”

Sondergaard’s controversial practices such as faith healing and claiming to cast out autism via baptism had some residents worried that a protest against the group might arise. Police Chief Tim Carpenter said he has been in discussions with the attorney general’s office and other agencies to create a coordinated response.

Lars Somero said the group would have ample room to spread out on the property, they’d have cleaners coming through on a daily basis, and that any preaching of the gospel off-site would not include going door-to-door or onto private property uninvited.

At least one local business is closing its doors entirely for the duration of the group’s visit. Emily Aho of the Newfoundland Pony Conservation Center in Jaffrey said she’s shutting down the center temporarily.

“I know from personal experience what COVID’s all about,” Aho said; she’s had two family members die from COVID-19 and has taken precautions seriously at the center. “We have a very strict policy here – no one visits without a mask.”

The Last Reformation’s event page urged attendees to stay at local campgrounds, and Aho said one is just down the street from the pony center. She said people wander onto the property to look around all the time, and expected the travelers would be tempted to visit. 

“We can’t avoid them,” Aho said. “It has nothing to do with their religion – the biggest thing is that they are anti-mask, they’re promoting that and they’re going out preaching. We have volunteers, we have high risk people here.”

Aho said she hopes to reopen the center after the group moves on. 

“Hopefully, there’s not a spike,” she said.

Representative Paul Somero (R-Hillsborough 25) owns the Locke Road property that will host the event. When reached for comment, he said he was currently at the National Association of Christian Lawmakers convention in Miramar Beach, Florida.

“We gather all the time in New Hampshire to share and worship our God,” Rep. Somero said in a text message, “the creator of all of us. In our Constitution we have freedom of religion….Love casts out all fear, we pray for our beautiful country of America. Let us all continue seeking truth – the truth shall set you free.”

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

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