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Churches across the nation begin holding in-person services

The inability to attend church each week has been one of the most affecting consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to social distancing guidelines, it’s been nearly impossible for congregations around the country to gather in ways they were accustomed to prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

As states begin to reopen, however, so are religious activities. Kevin Seager, the senior pastor for the Norwalk Alliance Church in Norwalk, Ohio, said earlier this week that his church began a particular re-opening of in-person services in early June. Yet even with that in mind, he acknowledged how hard it’s been to get things up and running again as Ohio transitions into its latest re-opening phase.

“This phase is actually the trickiest because we knew how to handle (being) completely shut down,” he said, “but this is kind of at the in-between, where you can hear a different thing every week. Eventually, this will go by, and we can get back to doing things as we’ve done it, but for the moment, out of love for our neighbor, we’re going to forego some of the things that have been one of the best ways that we like to do church — for example, singing a whole bunch of songs.

“We’re having to do things differently,” he concluded, “and that’s a challenge.”

Our reporters spoke with churches in 11 different states to see where they are with their re-opening plans and what comes next as they hope to begin the process of regularly gathering to worship together.

PENNSYLVANIA

Some parts of Pennsylvania have gone back to places of worship, while others have not. In Altoona, the Agudath Achim Congregation has not yet returned to the synagogue, but are meeting via Zoom.

“All services are being handled at my dining room table,” said Cantor Benjamin Matis, the spiritual leader of the congregation, which has about 100 families.

Matis said they haven’t reopened yet, as they’re being “extremely careful” when it comes to being cautious during the pandemic. He said there are those among his congregation who would love to get back into the building, and those that don’t feel it’s safe to do that just yet.

The leadership within the congregation are discussing when to open, he said, especially with “major Jewish holidays” approaching in the fall.

“Everything’s still very up in the air,” Matis said. “Yes, we’d love to reopen the synagogue — it’s a pain in the neck using Zoom. If we’re going to do anything, we’re going to do it as safely as possible.”

Matis referenced a Jewish law called “Pikuach nefesh,” which means that “the preservation of life and health takes precedence over all other legal concerns,” he said.

In Canonsburg, the congregation of the All Saints Greek Orthodox Church was very happy to get back to in-person services at 50 percent capacity.

“People even had tears and were crying coming back to church,” said the assistant priest Father George Athanasiou. “It’s a family. It’s a second home for some people.”

They are part of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh, which includes congregations in Ohio and West Virginia, and have been following guidelines from the metropolis. They had been doing virtual services with only a few church leaders in the building, according to Athanasiou.

“We’re not used to that TV or broadcast-based service,” he said. “We all became televangelists overnight.”

Like everywhere else, they’ve had to incorporate sanitizing stations, six feet of social distancing and face masks during services. They recently had a service with 80 people there, and they were wearing masks, Athanasiou said.

“It’s not just our own safety, but for the safety of others,” he said. “You want to be safe, especially for our older parishioners. We want people to feel comfortable coming back to church.”

OHIO

After initial COVID-19-related shutdowns across the state, many churches closed their doors to the public. Since June, some churches have returned to hosting services with restrictions while others are waiting to welcome back members.

Eric L. Bodenstab, the pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sandusky, said the church previously hosted a Saturday evening service and two Sunday services before the pandemic. Now, they’re not worshipping at all in the building.

In the 1970s, the church started broadcasting services over a local radio station, something they have continued to do for church members without Internet access. Services are also pre-recorded, edited and posted to the church’s YouTube channel.

For the missing Saturday service, Bodenstab has been making reflection videos that are posted to YouTube at the same time the in-person service would have been.

“It’s like 10 to 15 minutes at most, but it’s just a little reflection to stay in connection with folks who might have liked that service to give them something to see and do at that time,” he said. “Our faith formation folks got together and they’ve taken on doing something for children — a Sunday school time after the service.”

He said the church also has its own app which has helped the church stay in contact with members. Sermons are also posted as a podcast. For church members without internet access, the church has been mailing out bulletins, announcements and devotionals.

“We have just in this past week opened up the building for

appointment visits because we have what we need to do the cleaning inside the office,” Bodenstab said. “But we don’t have what we need yet to do the cleaning inside the building, so we are not yet meeting in the worship space, because we don’t have the hand sanitizer dispensers. They’re on order, but we’re waiting for them.”

Bodenstab said the council, representatives elected by the congregation, is still planning how they will conduct in-person worship services but have maintained contact with their members.

“Our council has taken it upon themselves with some other members to call the members of our congregation every week and we have about 490 households,” he said. “They don’t always get to everybody, but they give it a shot, just to stay in contact with everybody, every week.”

A few weeks ago, Bodenstab’s church began providing a drive-thru communion service.

“We take those elements and distribute them to folks as they drive underneath our covered entryway,” he said. “The first and third Sundays, we’re going to be doing that and I think that’s going to be our plan for the foreseeable future.”

Reverend Monte J. Hoyles, pastor of the Catholic parishes of Sandusky, said between March and the end of May, there were no public masses.

“Beginning on May 25, we started to offer our regularly scheduled masses,” Hoyles said. “The faithful were asked to reserve a pew online or to call the parish office to reserve a pew. Beginning June 27, we began to use every other pew, which is what most parishes in our area have been doing.”

The Sign of Peace and distribution of communion has been suspended and hymnals have been temporarily removed from pews.

“We have live-streamed Mass once each week, and originally added a number of online daily devotions,” Hoyles said. “One of our parish priests and several of our deacons have been telephoning our homebound parishioners to see how they are doing.

“We have also offered a number of online evening chats where people can comment, ask questions and feel like they are part of the event,” Hoyles added. “One of these was a Facebook cooking show with the priests of the parish.”

The Norwalk Alliance Church has also started welcoming back church members after becoming an online church since March.

Kevin Seager, senior pastor, said that during the first Sunday of June, they started a partial reopening of in-person services while continuing to live-stream the sermon.

“The in-person had a lot of restrictions,” he said. “We greatly reduced our seating capacity so that all chairs would be a minimum of six feet apart in groups of five or six years so families could sit together. We actually shorten the duration of our service from about an hour and 15 minutes to about 45 minutes just to reduce overall exposure.”

Seager said the church has made the difficult decision to suspend congregationally singing because doing so is “a prime way to be breathing hard over everybody around you.”

He said while following guidelines set by the state for COVID-19, they are also following another guideline: love for your neighbor.

“More than thinking about what your personal freedoms are, think about what’s good, not only for the people who want to come to church but even our greater community,” Seager said. “We don’t want to be creating more danger.”

MARYLAND

After two months of offering services completely online, Fredericktowne Baptist Church in Walkersville welcomed parishioners back on June 7. A week earlier, they went through a “dry run … where we had only ministry workers come in, just to get used to the new protocols,” Senior Pastor Tim Allen said.

Those steps included registering attendees, making sure they were wearing masks and guiding them to their seats. The auditorium’s removable seats were rearranged into socially distant blocks where families coul sit together while maintaining at least six feet between themselves and other groups. The church building is large enough that they have plenty of room for those attending, even with an occupancy limit of 50 percent of capacity, Allen said.

Allen said worshipping together is important, encouraged in the Book of Hebrews. But Allen also acknowledged Christians can be connected spiritually if they worship through electronic means because they are at greater risk of contracting the virus or don’t yet feel comfortable venturing out.

“We want to love our neighbors, we don’t want to put our neighbors at risk,” Allen said.

Even when they could not worship in the same building, members were checking on one another. More recently, they met in small groups in outdoor spaces like parks, Allen said.

The Frederick area is home to about 1,500 Muslims, said Dr. Syed Haque, chairman of the outreach committee for the Islamic Society of Frederick. Many of them gather for Friday prayers, comparable to a Sunday service at a Christian church, and a variety of other activities at the ISF Masjid in Frederick.

But those gatherings were put on hold from March 23 to the first weekend in June, Haque said. Eid Day, the May 24 gathering to mark the end of Ramadan that usually draws 3,000 people, was not held because of the pandemic, he said.

“For eight Fridays, we could not go,” he said.

Being able to return “was such a pleasure, such a release.”

Under the leadership of ISF Board of Directors President Khalil Elshazly, the masjid is following state guidelines, including requiring masks and social distancing, Haque said. People age 65 and older, those with underlying health conditions, individuals with symptoms and those who are simply uncomfortable going out were encouraged to stay home, he said.

Throughout the closure, the American Muslim institutions has said it is all right to pray at home instead of engaging in some traditional activities, Haque said.

“Your intentions are seen by God,” he said.

NEW YORK

By the time Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in early June that houses of worship could resume in-person services, Tupper Lake Christian Center Church had already welcomed some members back into the sanctuary.

Pastor David Boyea said the decision was based on the low amount of COVID-19 cases in the area, as well as President Donald Trump saying in May that churches are essential and should be allowed to reopen.

“At the time we opened, we had zero known cases,” Boyea said. “We’re a town of probably a little under 4,000.”

Tupper Lake is in Franklin County, which registered 31 positive cases through June 30. Boyea said a very small number of those were in Tupper Lake.

The state allowed religious facilities to have up to 25 percent occupancy in Phase 2 of the New York Forward Reopening plan, and that was set to rise to 33 percent in Phase 4. However, a lawsuit over the original cap on indoor religious gatherings when other activities are allowed 50 percent occupancy led a federal judge issuing an injunction on the limit last week.

Boyea said he recommends that people attending services wear masks, but some “just can’t tolerate wearing a mask; they just can’t breathe.”

Those individuals were invited to sit in the front row, although some have started to occupy the third and fourth rows as well. Boyea said he won’t “police” masks.

“If it was different in Tupper Lake, I would,” he said.

Maintaining six feet of social distance during a service is “quite impossible,” Boyea said, but people are avoiding standing face to face, using fist bumps instead of hand shakes and utilizing hand sanitizer and other precautions.

“If something were to change in Tupper Lake, we would change things,” he said.

About 20 miles away, in Saranac Lake, St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church resumed in-person masses two weeks ago, with social distancing and masks required.

“I haven’t heard any complaints about the rules we had to put in place,” said the Rev. Martin Cline, pastor at St. Bernard’s. “After every Mass, all the pews, anything the public would have touched — like handrails, light switches, door handles — is sanitized.”

Cline noted the requirement to attend Mass in person has been waived during the pandemic and he understands some people may not feel safe returning to church right now.

If he was a parishioner instead of a priest, “I would be a little uncertain myself,” he said.

But the online services the church has offered over the last couple months just aren’t the same as worshipping in person together, Cline said.

“When you’re saying Mass and you’re looking up and you’re seeing cameras instead of faces, there is definitely something missing,” he said.

The Rev. Eric Olsen pastors both First United Methodist Church and the Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity in Saranac Lake. They did not resume services in-person services until Sunday.

“We wanted that extra time just to see how things were going and follow the trends,” Olsen said.

For July and August, they decided to conduct worship outdoors. One of the requirements for staying inside is that there be no singing. But outside, Olsen said, they can increase their social distance space to 12 feet and continue to lift their voices in praise.

WEST VIRGINIA

Outbreaks at churches have contributed to rising COVID-19 numbers in West Virginia.

That hasn’t happened at the Ash Avenue Church of God in Moundsville, but they are prepared, Pastor C.J. Plogger said. If a member tests positive, people will be notified via automated phone call and online.

“We’ve said if we had three cases, we would go back to streaming online,” Plogger said.

In-person services halted the last two Sundays in March and resumed May 24. Every other row was sectioned off to promote social distancing, and gloves and masks are provided, Plogger said. Boxes have been set up to receive offerings so no ushers are passing collection plates, and communion is served using individually wrapped wafers and cups.

“We’ve not had any greeters yet because we don’t want multiple contacts,” Plogger said.

Plogger believes community is one of the most important aspects of the Christian faith.

“We all have challenges; we all have lessons to learn, so we can come together and lift each other up,” he said.

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