Delta variant puts many Atlanta-area religious leaders in a quandary

Miranda McKenzie (right) participates in Sunday's service at the Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church in Atlanta on Aug. 29, 2021. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Miranda McKenzie (right) participates in Sunday's service at the Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church in Atlanta on Aug. 29, 2021. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Some return to previous COVID safety protocols; others enact even stricter rules

Vera Walton waited 18 months to attend in-person worship services at the 107-year-old Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church in DeKalb County.

For months during the coronavirus pandemic, the church had been holding services online. Walton hungered for the comfort and familiarity of fellowship and praise with other congregants.

Last month, the church reopened for service, and Walton returned to the sanctuary.

There are a few rules, however: Masks must be worn, temperature checks are required at the entrances, and attendees have to register and receive a confirmation number to enter the sanctuary.

Perhaps the biggest and most controversial addition, though, is a requirement to show proof of full vaccination.

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Ernie Fuller takes the temperature of the Rev. William E. Flippin Sr., senior pastor of Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church, before the church service starts Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Ernie Fuller takes the temperature of the Rev. William E. Flippin Sr., senior pastor of Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church, before the church service starts Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Ernie Fuller takes the temperature of the Rev. William E. Flippin Sr., senior pastor of Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church, before the church service starts Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

It’s a move that, although not widespread, appears to be gaining traction in places of worship as the virulent and highly contagious COVID-19 delta variant sweeps through Georgia, overwhelming hospitals and filling ICU beds with patients, most of whom are unvaccinated.

Walton, who received both doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in March, feels safer going into the DeKalb County sanctuary than before.

“I’m comfortable in my skin walking in my church simply because my pastor asked for proof of vaccination,” said Walton, 67, who lives less than 3 miles from the church, which she has attended for 27 years.

The Rev. William E. Flippin Sr., Greater Piney Grove’s senior pastor, has drawn both support and criticism for the church’s decision, which he says was carefully deliberated and included input from medical personnel.

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Masked and socially distant Jackie Hudd (left) and Azora Pitts talk before the Sunday service starts at the Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church in Atlanta on Aug. 29, 2021. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Masked and socially distant Jackie Hudd (left) and Azora Pitts talk before the Sunday service starts at the Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church in Atlanta on Aug. 29, 2021. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Masked and socially distant Jackie Hudd (left) and Azora Pitts talk before the Sunday service starts at the Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church in Atlanta on Aug. 29, 2021. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

But the safety measures Greater Piney Grove and other houses of worship have enacted have left them in a thorny situation: How do you protect your congregations and still be welcoming to all — even the unvaccinated — who want to worship?

Safety protocols at places of worship run the gamut. Some continue to hold online-only or outdoor services; others offer a hybrid, while others have resumed in-person services or never stopped them. New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Stonecrest, for instance, which has had several members die from the virus, planned to go back in the building Labor Day weekend, but the rise in cases prompted them to hold services outdoors.

There are registration processes to limit the number of worshippers at some services. Some require masks; others make them optional. Some have strongly encouraged their members to get the vaccine, even becoming testing and vaccination sites, such as The Nett Church, which has two campuses in metro Atlanta.

A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the nonprofit Interfaith Youth Core found that nearly 4 in 10 vaccine-hesitant people in the United States who attend religious services at least a few times a year say one or more faith-based approaches — such as knowing a trusted religious leader got the vaccine or being able to get the vaccine at a religious congregation — would make them more likely to get vaccinated.

After the protocols at Greater Piney Grove became the focus of news reports, Flippin said his office heard from other metro churches that are interested in doing the same or already require proof of vaccination.

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Angela Bohles (left) takes the temperature of church members before they enter the sanctuary at the Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church in Atlanta Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Angela Bohles (left) takes the temperature of church members before they enter the sanctuary at the Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church in Atlanta Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Combined ShapeCaption
Angela Bohles (left) takes the temperature of church members before they enter the sanctuary at the Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church in Atlanta Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The church leader offers no apologies. The health of his congregation, which is overwhelmingly Black and includes many older members, is foremost on his mind.

“I have no second thoughts whatsoever,” Flippin said. “I have three people I know, maybe four, who didn’t get vaccinated and they’re in the hospital. People don’t understand it’s not just about them.”

A delicate balancing act

In mid-August, Georgia hit a million COVID-19 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic in 2020. As of midweek, the state was approaching 1.1 million confirmed cases.

As of Wednesday, just 44% of Georgia’s population was fully vaccinated, putting it about 8 points below the national average.

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Temple Kol Emeth in east Cobb was virtual for a while and started in-person services again three months ago.

“Everybody was excited, ‘We’re all coming back,‘ and now the question arises how do we bring our congregation back together, balance the health needs of the community and inspire and uplift them after such a challenging year,” said Senior Rabbi Larry Sernovitz.

The synagogue recently decided to require proof of full vaccination to attend the High Holy Days services this month of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, he said, although there will also be a virtual option.

L. Edward Phillips, an associate professor at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, said national debate about mask mandates, freedom to decide and personal responsibility — as well as the political and cultural divides — makes the implementation of these measures a delicate balancing act for religious leaders.

Consider a recent sermon delivered by Tennessee Pastor Greg Locke of Global Vision Bible Church in which he warned that anyone wearing a mask to services would be shown the door. According to The Christian Post, David Darling, an evangelical author and spokesman of the National Religious Broadcasters, claimed he was fired after he urged evangelicals in an opinion article to get the vaccine and refused to backtrack.

On the other end of the spectrum, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine recently mandated that all clergy and staffers get vaccinated by the end of September. That kind of mandate hasn’t been given in Georgia, but within the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, Archbishop Gregory John Hartmayer — who is vaccinated along with all auxiliary bishops and encouraging others to get vaccinated — has asked priests not to sign letters from parishioners requesting a general religious exemption from the COVID vaccine, according to an email from the archdiocese. Even Flippin at Greater Piney Grove knows he could lose members over his church’s stance. He’s already heard from one member who won’t be back.

“I don’t think the desire to be open is going to change, but you have to weigh that against other questions like what does it mean to care for others,” said Phillips, who is also the co-convener of the Ecumenical Consultation on Protocols for Worship, Fellowship and Sacraments to provide recommendations for safe practices for churches during the pandemic.

“Some see this as an issue of religious freedom, but honestly speaking, religious freedom is not the first Christian value. The first value is to love thy neighbor. How do I love my neighbor as Jesus said?”

Pastor Rodrigo Cruz, senior pastor of The Nett Church, with campuses in Lilburn and Lawrenceville, said his church is not requiring proof of vaccination.

“... we talked about it as a church, but we didn’t feel it was the right thing to do,” Cruz said. “We have an honor system. We know vaccination has been a very polarizing topic, even within the church. We don’t think singling out people is the most effective way to move forward.”

The church does require masks for staffers, volunteers who work with children and children. For other members, they are recommended but not mandated. About 95% of congregants wear them anyway.

Due to the spread of the variant, “we’re going slowly back to precautions we had before,” said Cruz. Social distancing, for instance, is encouraged, but it isn’t enforced as stringently as it was last year. The church also created five family rooms, where they livestream services.

Making sure everyone is safe

Prashanthi Asireddy, president of the Hindu Temple of Atlanta in Riverdale, said the temple, which was virtual part of 2020 until the end of May, continues to follow specific protocols, such as requiring masks, sanitizing the facility and social distancing. It now holds virtual and in-person services.

“One of the advantages we have is that we’re part of the Indian community,” she said. “Most of them are highly educated and they believe in science. At the same time, we’re very, very confident that the Indian community has been vaccinated. The big concern for us is that we are a nonprofit organization and we have volunteers here. We want to make sure everyone is safe.”

Officials plan to wait a few weeks to determine if other safety protocols should be brought back, including contact tracing and temperature checks.

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At The Temple on Peachtree Road, a high percentage of congregants are fully vaccinated, said Rabbi Peter Berg, senior rabbi of Atlanta’s oldest and largest Jewish congregation.

“We had a few weeks that, if you were vaccinated, you could take the masks off,” he said. “Since the delta variant, everyone’s mask is back on. There’s a Jewish tradition — pikuach nefesh — which means saving a life. Saving a life supersedes every other command in the Jewish tradition.”

The Temple is investing more in television, podcast and recording studios to enable it to reach members, not just in the pandemic but in “our new normal,” Berg said.

Previously, The Temple encouraged vaccination, but didn’t require it. Now, during the High Holy Days, it’s required to protect everybody, he said.

The rise of the variant has Berg “extremely concerned.”

He’s for the health of immunocompromised congregants “who are masked and following all the rules but because others aren’t, they’re at risk. I, frankly, just can’t comprehend what people are thinking.”

At Mt. Ephraim Baptist Church in Atlanta, Pastor R. L. White Jr. wonders about that, too.

White said he’s gotten a little pushback from some members, though not a great deal, since requiring churchgoers be vaccinated and wear a mask to attend services in the sanctuary.

“We as a church need to be responsible for the care of those who attend our services,” which are also available online, he said.

Some members have complained that “I put money in this church and I need to be able to come in when I’m ready,” White said. “I tell them this is not a good show of faith.”