Liberty University plans to send nearly 2,200 students to Washington, D.C., on Saturday to take part in a prayer march organized by Franklin Graham, an evangelical leader with close ties to the conservative religious institution.
Acting Liberty President Jerry Prevo said the students will join about 50,000 marchers who will travel along the National Mall from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol building, occasionally pausing at individual memorials to pray.
“It’s strictly a prayer march. It’s not a protest. It’s not a demonstration,” Prevo, who sits on the board of Samaritan’s Purse, a charity led by Graham, said. “We’re just basically praying for our nation, praying for our people and praying for this COVID thing to get over with.”
Graham, the son of famed Baptist preacher Billy Graham, has pitched the march as an opportunity to remind politicians about the importance of God in American life.
At convocation last week, the religious leader invited Liberty students to participate in the event and to show politicians that “young people today are willing to take a stand for Jesus Christ.”
“We’re not going to yell and scream and chant,” he said. “We’re going to quietly go from one end of that Mall to the other and we’re going to pray, asking God to heal our country, to heal the heart of our politicians.”
The decision to send thousands of students to a major city amid the still-ongoing coronavirus pandemic likely is to spark concern among those worried about the virus’ rapid, and often undetected, spread.
Liberty on Wednesday reported 128 active COVID-19 cases among its about 15,000 residential students. More than 1,000 students have been instructed to quarantine, according to the university’s COVID-19 online dashboard.
Keith Anderson, executive director of the Health & Wellness Office of Liberty University, said students must follow some requirements to participate in the march, including wearing masks and adhering to social-distancing guidelines.
Students will not be tested before the trip but they must complete a health screening and report any symptoms before boarding one of at least 20 buses secured by the university for the approximately three-hour drive to Washington. The buses are scheduled to leave at 6 a.m. The two-hour march is scheduled to begin at noon.
Anderson said students will be assigned specific buses and individual seats to make contact tracing investigations easier, if students do become sick. The buses will also be cleaned before the first leg of the trip and prior to the return to the Hill City.
“We’re doing all that we can to try to keep those individuals safe,” Anderson said, referring to students.
Virginia is not among the states deemed “high risk” by Washington officials, and residents from the commonwealth are not required to self-quarantine after arriving in the district. Masks are required to be worn throughout much of the city, including in outdoor settings where people are likely to come into contact with others.
Campus Pastor David Nasser said the students will largely stay in one group and will be offered lunch through a catering company so students don’t have to find meals elsewhere in the city. He said the precautions reflected the university’s attempt to implement the necessary health requirements while still ensuring students have “the religious liberties to be able to worship.”
“We want this to be not just a spiritual event, but also just a safe event with good practices,” he said.