Father Stephen Akers of Sacred Heart & St. Benedict Catholic Church in Hollister is bringing some patience to the task of reopening services amid the pandemic.
“We are excited and we have a lot of energy, but we still have to think about how to do this well,” he said.
On May 25, the state of California issued new guidelines for reopening places of worship utilizing the established rules of social distancing. The 16-page document limits the number of church attendees to 25% of building capacity or no more than 100 people, whichever is lower. It suggests limiting risky activities including singing, group recitation, and physical contact, and requires changes to seating and standing areas to maintain a physical distance of six feet.
Other regulations and suggestions cover the use of ritual items, the proper cleaning of objects and common areas, and the use of protective equipment like face masks. The state also suggests holding extra services to limit congregation size, as well as maintaining remote services. The guidelines will be reviewed after 21 days to make sure the chances of transmitting the coronavirus within a congregation are minimized.
“We are following the governor’s guidelines and those of our own bishop, which are reasonable and what would be expected,” Akers said. “We are putting together a comprehensive plan, but looking at this as a way to get back to serving the community.”
St. Benedicts Church, which will be opening on June 7, seats over 800 people, but Akers is happy to hold services for just 100 at a time, as prescribed in the guidelines.
“I was surprised,” he said. “I was expecting something lower so it has been a breath of fresh air. It shows the plans for reopening are well thought through.”
The church closures presented a unique problem to what had been the free gathering of congregations every Sunday.
“We had to find new ways of doing church,” said Father Ken Wratten of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Hollister. “We made a really quick move to doing online services, sending out an email Sunday morning so people could click on a link to connect. We tried to make it as uncomplicated as possible for people to be able to see their familiar chapel and hear the names of people being prayed for.”
Wratten included some of the more social functions in the online meetings and was surprised at the reception.
“We added our virtual coffee hour, which is a very important part of our Sunday,” he said, “and we found there were more people connecting into those kinds of activities than are usually there. Some people who had been part of the church and had moved out of the area were joining in again, which was a great connection. We plan to keep doing it.”
St. Benedicts will also continue to conduct services online.
“We have many people who are in the at-risk group and we really want them to consider this seriously,” Akers said. “Just like going to the store, the risk coming here is not zero. We want to make sure that people who are at risk or just nervous can connect with us online. We are telling them that we would prefer they miss one Sunday at church so they can be with us many more Sundays in the future.”
With a reduced number of people being able to attend a single service, Akers is open to the possibility of having multiple Sunday services.
“We are not planning on doing a full schedule of services right away, but we are going to see how many people are ready to come and go from there,” he said. “We want them to be ready. One of the basic understandings of faith is the fragility of life and we accept we are not invincible.”
According to Akers, while the closure has forced people to change plans involving the church, they have been understanding.
“The general principle has been if we can postpone it, we will postpone it,” Akers said. “For a baptism, it is reasonable to wait a month or two. With people getting married, we would have been willing to have very small ceremonies of 10 people or so, but nobody wants to uninvite their whole family. So for a lot of these things we are just waiting for the opportunity.”
The coronavirus will bring changes to how worship is practiced once congregations return.
“In our version of what happens on Sunday,” Wratten said, “there is a lot of hugging. There is a lot of reciting out loud together and we take communion together. None of that can really happen right now. We love these folks and this is not a liability we are willing to accept.”
Wratten said St. Luke’s will take its time to test the water.
“The governor wants us to have one week to get everything ready, then services for two weeks until June 21 to see what happens,” he said. “But we are going to wait until the 21st to have in-person worship. We are working hard on a written plan to protect everyone who will be coming here.”
Speaking to that point, the state guidelines warn that “even with adherence to physical distancing, convening in a congregational setting . . . carries a relatively higher risk for widespread transmission of the COVID-19 virus, and may result in increased rates of infection, hospitalization, and death, especially among more vulnerable populations.”
Several recent COVID-19 outbreaks in the United States have been linked to church services, including two cases in California tied to unauthorized services on Mother’s Day.
“I think it was not wise for those pastors to not take into account the reality of the scientific evidence that this is a highly contagious virus,” said Wratten. “It makes no sense to me that it was ignored. Our church will not ignore it and I won’t ignore it. God forbid that I would ever be responsible for a decision about our services that would end up passing on COVID-19 to anyone in an at-risk group.”
Reopening churches could help with the sense of frustration some people have felt regarding shelter restrictions.
“It has been a source of friction sometimes to see commercial sectors being given more latitude to open and function while we have had really nothing that we have been able to do,” Akers said. “The time of shelter-in-place has brought into a sharper light those human connections we have that a church brings. It has led to a greater discussion of what our role is as a community of faith as being part of the effort to curb this virus while also dealing with the church being an essential part of our lives.”
Part of that discussion, whether in-person or on Zoom, is placing COVID-19 in context with people’s lives.
“I feel it is a core issue for a person of faith to handle things that happen badly,” said Wratten. “It has been something since the beginning of time, why bad things happen. And nobody is going to know until we are face-to-face with God. But what I preach is God is with us, God doesn’t prevent us from running into these kinds of situations, but he gives us the intelligence, discernment, and wisdom to get through it.”
For Akers, it is also a lesson in how we live our own lives.
“The global scale of the pandemic reminds us of the global scale of our actions, taking care of the people around us and reaching out to others who need care,” he said. “It is a school lesson in compassion.”
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