One year ago, Canadian Pastor James Coates was in jail for leading his congregation in worship amid the COVID-19 pandemic — an outcome he said he never would have imagined, but one that has led more people to come to Christ and even resulted in exponential growth for his church.
“I did not expect what happened to have happened,” he told CBN’s Faithwire during a recent extended interview. “There’s no way we could have anticipated that. Even as we were seeing things progress and even as arrests were kind of on the table, [I] never even thought for a moment that it would have the visibility and the impact that it did.”
It was in June of 2020 when Coates decided to reopen the doors of GraceLife Church in Edmonton, Alberta. The pastor recalled a handful of coronavirus infections prompted him to close the doors to the church for a couple of weeks before reopening the sanctuary for Sunday morning services in late July of that year.
Listen to the latest episode of the Faithwire podcast 👇
GraceLife remained open for a lengthy stretch of time before running into problems with government authorities. In mid-December of 2020, Alberta Health Services inspector Janine Hanrahan issued an order against the church, mandating pastors restrict attendance to just 15% of the building’s total capacity, a stipulation with which Coates was not willing to comply. The health official also ordered parishioners to wear masks and remain physically distant from one another.
While the church fought the onerous restrictions placed upon them, the legal clash ultimately resulted in Coates’ arrest and incarceration for 35 days, beginning in mid-February and ending in late March.
Backing up just a little bit, Coates recalled the numerous conversations he had with his fellow GraceLife pastors, noting they often sought God’s guidance and consulted Scripture to ensure their decision to remain open was one rooted in their theological beliefs rather than their political views, though it became increasingly difficult to separate the two, as their convictions certainly carried with them political ramifications in the form of civil disobedience.
Despite the risk of arrest, Coates said, the pastoral staff deemed it important enough to stand by their decision to keep the doors of their Edmonton church open for worship services.
“We [the pastors] continually met and we agreed, ‘We’re gonna stay open, we’re gonna press on, we’re gonna move forward,'” Coates said. “And that ended with my imprisonment. When I got in prison, our leadership was done talking about whether or not we were gonna keep going. I mean, that just settled it — we were going all the way.”
Although the pastor recalled several “difficult moments” over the course of the entire saga, he said he never once second-guessed the decision to defy what he saw as a flagrant attack on his religious freedoms.
Coates — who has become something of a household name — eschewed those who characterize him as a “courageous man,” revealing it was the Holy Spirit who equipped him to handle the trials he faced.
“A lot of folks just kind of see the courage and they think I’m this incredibly courageous man,” he said. “Well, if you could just be in there along the way, what you see in the pulpit is this Spirit-empowered moment as I preached the Word of God. But there are moments of difficulty and challenge and turmoil along the way.”
In fact, Coates wrote about much of that in “God vs. Government: Taking a Biblical Stand When Christ and Compliance Collide,” a newly released book he co-authored with Nathan Busenitz, dean of The Master’s Seminary in Los Angeles. Coates said he revealed many of the difficulties of his journey in hopes readers “will see my weakness and really then give glory to Christ, who’s my strength.”
Another source of strength for Coates amid this entire ordeal was his wife, Erin.
“My wife is an incredibly courageous woman of conviction,” he said. “So there was really never any doubt for her [that we were doing the right thing]. I didn’t have to bring her along. If anything, there were times when she was having to bring me along. She would not be open to the idea of us shutting down and closing our church. She was as resolved as I was to keep it open.”
Erin was “willing to walk the path,” Coates recalled. But it didn’t come without a cost.
Even now, Coates said, his wife can’t watch the viral video footage of his release from prison after spending more than a month behind bars, because it “takes her back to a difficult place.”
“But her commitment and resolve to follow Christ even when it’s difficult is there,” he said. “That was helpful for me, because if I had a wife who I was having to bring along and convince and persuade that, ‘We’ve gotta do this, dear,’ that would’ve made it so much more difficult. I didn’t have to do that at all.”
This entire chapter of their lives, Coates reflected, has strengthened their relationship with one another, which he sees as evidence of “God’s providence” throughout the entire ordeal.
“He put everything in place, from our leadership to my wife to our congregation — everything was in place for our church to take this stand,” he said. “To have a leadership that is united, that in and of itself is incredibly difficult on this issue … and then for a wife to be supportive and then for our congregation to be committed to one another and committed to Christ. We just had all of the ingredients you needed to take that stand.”
Coates said GraceLife Church has tripled in size since this entire issue began.
Unfortunately, the church’s clash with the government did not end with Coates’ release from jail.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police even slapped the church with more charges while Coates was incarcerated. Then, after he was released — and the church still refused to close — government authorities installed a barricade around GraceLife Church and blocked roadways leading to the place of worship.
In response, Coates and the other pastors briefly led their congregation from an undisclosed location. Making that happen — particularly in the Western world — is not only hard to believe but difficult to accomplish, Coates said.
“To have 400-500 folks traveling to an undisclosed location, to make that happen practically, from an administrative standpoint, is very challenging,” he said. “But once you get there, it’s wonderful. We had some wonderful gatherings out under the sun with the preaching of the Word of God.”
Coates even noted he and other church leaders have considered holding underground services once a summer to “commemorate what we experienced last year.”
Thankfully, roughly one year later, all pandemic-era restrictions in Alberta have been lifted. The members of GraceLife Church are now back in their sanctuary, this time without any COVID-19 regulations.
“What a difference a year makes,” Coates reflected. “The whole experience is definitely surreal. It seems like a long time ago in one sense and like yesterday in another. It’s really been an incredible journey and, if you had told us ahead of time that that was going to happen, we never would’ve believed you.”
Later in the conversation with CBN’s Faithwire, Coates revealed that his relationship with John MacArthur, founding pastor of Grace Community Church in Los Angeles, started out of the blue, when his wife, Erin, received a voicemail from the California-based preacher while her husband was behind bars.
Coates said the message from MacArthur “was just incredibly encouraging.”
“His ministry has shaped my ministry more so than any other,” he explained. “He’s really been, in a sense, the Apostle Paul to me. He’s been the Paul in my life and me the Timothy.”
Looking back, Coates expressed deep gratitude for the ways in which MacArthur — who likewise refused to comply with California’s pandemic mandates on churches — has supported him, his family, and GraceLife Church in Edmonton throughout the entire pandemic.
“I feel like he’s taken me under his wing a little bit and spoke into my life and encouraged me,” said Coates. “That camaraderie just came out of the fact that we were taking the same stand.”
The need for Christians to band together against government overreach, Coates noted, is not over. He believes the COVID-19 pandemic just marked the beginning of governmental authorities attempting to establish “totalitarian” rule in Western countries.
“I think this is going to continue to take place, there’s going to continue to be battles,” Coates said, describing his journey as a “practical illustration of what it looks like to take a courageous stand on the Word of God.”
***As the number of voices facing big-tech censorship continues to grow, please sign up for Faithwire’s daily newsletter and download the CBN News app, developed by our parent company, to stay up-to-date with the latest news from a distinctly Christian perspective.***