Pastor cautions on push by some state legislators to re-open churches

Posted 11 May 2020 at 8:35 am

Many congregations have large numbers of senior citizens, who are vulnerable to virus


Assemblyman Hawley and Senator Ortt, along with other elected colleagues, in an article carried by the Hub on May 9, want to speed up the opening of churches and religious institutions as soon as possible.

As a pastor, I, too, wish for churches and other religious groups to be able to re-open, but I approach any plan to re-open with a great deal of caution.

Churches often have significant numbers of older participants, who may also have pre-existing conditions, making them more susceptible to the severity of Covid-19. The concentration of Covid-19 infection in adult care facilities, should give every church with elderly participants pause. Any one of us could be carrying the virus without knowing it and putting others at risk, including members of our own families.

The original belief was that Covid-19 had had its worst effects among the elderly, but there is plenty of evidence emerging that children are also vulnerable. Children are the most challenging to contain by physical distancing protocols, and we would not want to give a false impression that the safety of children can be maintained in social settings like churches.

I would not look forward to reopening our building, knowing that at least two populations could not be safely accommodated at the present time, the elderly and children.

The urgency felt by these elected officials to open our churches does not trump the need to protect our most vulnerable neighbors. One thing I can say with certainty: Assemblyman Hawley and Senator Ortt have not requested my input about any of this. Ortt’s most recent mailing on the virus was nothing more than a campaign ad with some safety tips and Hawley’s most recent mailing was a survey that  did not even mention the virus. I am not sure how it is that they have assessed the opinion of the religious organizations that they seem to want to advocate for.

Religious groups planning to reopen their buildings need to have a clear plan for disinfecting all surfaces that people touch – door knobs, bathroom fixtures, tables, pews and chairs, even hymn books and Bibles. How often will this cleaning be done, who will do it, and who will oversee it?

Religious groups love their singing, especially organized choirs and bands, but have we fully analyzed the adequacy of a six-foot distance when people are singing this close to each other? I don’t want anyone coughing near me, and that probably goes for singing, too.

‘Counterintuitively, we are drawing more people to worship than we did before in-person services were cancelled. We mail Sunday School lesson packets to families with children through the mail, and the number receiving them has been growing.’

Our church building has a number of structural issues to contend with: entries and exits are fairly narrow in our old building, bathroom facilities are few, and our sanctuary might not have enough room to seat people with adequate distances between them. Physical distancing in old buildings like ours will be especially challenging.

Yes, there are some measures we could take, like hand sanitizer in every pew, masks available at the door, plenty of gloves to hand out as well, roping off certain seats, teaching people how to cough and sneeze more safely, no hand-shaking (or elbow bumps), no passing of the offering plate from hand to hand, and as yet to be determined risk-diminishing ways to celebrate the intimate rituals of communion or baptism.

But here’s something that worries me: Whose job will it be to “enforce” our safety protocols? I can imagine at least a few who might enter our building refusing to follow our precautions, tell us that our fears are exaggerated, that they are willing to accept the risk, that face masks are actually dangerous, insist the virus is “fake news”, cite discredited studies as rationale for non-compliance, take a Facebook friend’s posting as gospel truth, or declare their rights without regard to responsibilities.

My congregation, of course, is missing the weekly gathering in the church building. The weekly gathering is the heart of who we are. For the time being we have shifted to “virtual” worship through Zoom. We offer plenty of time for people to socialize before and after the service. It’s a bit chaotic when the microphones are unmuted during these times, but it is beautiful to behold to witness the enthusiasm.

Counterintuitively, we are drawing more people to worship than we did before in-person services were cancelled. We mail Sunday School lesson packets to families with children through the mail, and the number receiving them has been growing.

We have established a way for people to contribute their financial support on-line, though most people are quite adept at sending checks through the mail in place of the weekly offering. Our sewing group has been creating face masks for church families, the wider community, and also local farmworkers. We encourage food donations to a neighboring congregation that distributes food to the community.

Our members are generous in staying in touch with others, and seeing to their needs. Who would have guessed that in time of crisis we have become more effective in our ministry, stewardship and outreach?

Rather than feel the urgency of the political leaders cited in the article who seem to think our religious life is threatened, we are doing better than we imagined. We cannot come to church in the present time, but we are being the church!

Of course, we are eager to return to what was, but we will take the time to get it right. In fact, we will never return to what was, but we are already becoming what we will be. In my tradition we consider this a season of resurrection. What appeared to be dead and gone is very much alive and growing.

Rev. James R. Renfrew