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Some churches prepare for in-person worship; others question safety

Mary Beth McKenna (left), director of religious education, Deacon John Puetz (right) and Rita Anderson (behind), youth minister, place signs on Saturday, May 23, 2020, as Father Paul Flood (standing behind) looks ahead to resuming daily Mass on Monday at St. Benedict Catholic Church. (Photo: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Mary Beth McKenna (left), director of religious education, Deacon John Puetz (right) and Rita Anderson (behind), youth minister, place signs on Saturday, May 23, 2020, as Father Paul Flood (standing behind) looks ahead to resuming daily Mass on Monday at St. Benedict Catholic Church. (Photo: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The Rev. Richard B. Haynes, pastor of Salem Missionary Baptist Church, is in no hurry to bring worshippers back into his Lilburn church.

“It’s a virus we don’t understand,” Haynes said of the coronavirus pandemic. “We don’t have the answers. I think it would be wise to find out what we’re up against before we start trying to figure out how we can navigate around it. Our virtual service has been working quite well.”

He’s among many Georgia pastors who are still considering when it’s safe to bring congregants back.

Gov. Brian Kemp has wrestled with banning in-person religious services and hasn’t ordered churches to close during the pandemic. Instead, he has recommended houses of worship hold services in alternate ways.

This past week, however, President Donald Trump added pressure to states and places of worship to reopen “right now.”

He called houses of worship “essential” and called on state officials to “do the right thing.” He threatened to override any governor who resisted.

Kemp later tweeted: “I wholeheartedly agree with @realDonaldTrump: Places of worship - especially during these difficult times - are ESSENTIAL!”

Bernice King, CEO of the King Center and daughter of civil rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., tweeted: “The Church is not a building. The Church is a people. People are essential.”

Father Paul Flood poses in front of a sign as Khanh Mai, facility manager, takes a photograph using a smartphone on Saturday, May 23, 2020, at the entrance of St. Benedict Catholic Church. Daily Mass is expected to resume Monday. (Photo: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Father Paul Flood poses in front of a sign as Khanh Mai, facility manager, takes a photograph using a smartphone on Saturday, May 23, 2020, at the entrance of St. Benedict Catholic Church. Daily Mass is expected to resume Monday. (Photo: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

While many churches are sticking with their virtual services for now, some are taking steps to regain some normalcy. The Archdiocese of Atlanta — home to 1.2 million Catholics in 69 North Georgia counties, including all of metro Atlanta and Athens — recently announced that churches can hold daily Mass beginning Monday.

Still, many faith centers, Salem Missionary Baptist Church among them, have decided to stay virtual for now.

RelatedAtlanta Archdiocese prepares for daily Masses

“At this point I haven’t seen enough or heard enough” about COVID-19, said Haynes, who has served as senior pastor of the church since 1988. “There hasn’t been enough positive feedback that I feel comfortable bringing people back.”

One of his biggest concerns: The pandemic is hitting the black community particularly hard, with reports indicating African Americans making up most of Georgia's hospitalizations.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

It’s a community that Salem Missionary Baptist has served for 185 years. What’s more, over a quarter of the congregation is 60 years of age or older. That raises additional concerns because older Americans and those will health issues are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.

These concerns — coupled with some of Georgia’s COVID-19 outbreaks being linked to religious services — explain why some denominations, including the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church and the Sixth District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, are looking at perhaps mid- to late June to resume in-person worship service. The United Methodist bishop suggested churches not gather before June 22.

“Our chief directive is always the love of neighbor, which means sometimes we will have to exceed secular directive and pressures,” said the Right Rev. Robert C. Wright, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, which has directed that all meetings, worship and pastoral care remain online or remotely until further notice.

Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle in Ringgold resumed its in-person services, with precautions, in late April but went back to holding online-only after several members contracted the virus.

Congregants were spaced apart, hand sanitizer was provided, there were no handshakes, nursery service or passing of the collection plate. Those who were at risk were encouraged to stay home. The church noted in a statement that roughly 25 percent of congregants had attended the in-person worship services during the time it was reopened, according to the Christian Post.

Still people got sick, according to health officials who are investigating the cases.

“It is understandable to want to return to activities like this, but it’s important to recognize that they present an especially high risk of transmission,” said Kristin Bratton Nelson, an infectious disease epidemiologist and researcher at Emory University.

“It’s also important to remember that risk is shared. Even if you are not sick or do not fall into a high-risk group … the people around you may. And so it’s not only the risk to individuals that’s important, but also the risk to the community at large that should be considered when assessing if and how to hold these services.”

Nelson said measures like wearing masks, social distancing, increasing airflow in a building, if possible, reducing the number of people present and the length of the service and thorough disinfecting of shared surfaces will make services safer.

“However, none of these measures can completely eliminate risk,” she said.

RelatedHow COVID-19 has changed the way chaplains do their jobs

The Rev. Sammie J. Dow, senior pastor of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Marietta, recently conducted a member survey to gauge the congregation’s comfort level with coming back inside.

An “overwhelming” majority wanted services to remain online until health officials have a better idea of the spread of the virus, possible treatments and a vaccine.

That feedback, coupled with Dow’s concerns, “could very well mean we don’t look at reopening until late summer to early fall.”

The Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta has held discusssions.

“As it is now some of the clergy anticipate the month of July,” according to a statement from President Bettye Holland Williams.

The Rev. Shell Osbon has been holding online and drive-in worship services at Life Church Smyrna, where the pastor’s message and music are broadcast on FM radio as worshippers never leave their cars.

He plans to gradually start returning to the building on June 7 with two morning services, limited seating and social distancing. Then, on the first Sunday in July, the church plans to return to its regular schedule “that’s pending no changes in the health concerns.”

“First and foremost, we’re only going to make that transition if we feel safe,” he said.

For Catholic churches resuming Mass on Monday, guidelines have been put into place for the safety of parishioners and some steps are left up to the discretion of the pastor. Those who are at risk or uncomfortable can still watch Mass online.

On Saturday, May 23, 2020, Father Paul Flood checks social distancing measures in preparation for Monday’s planned resumption of daily Mass at St. Benedict Catholic Church in Johns Creek. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
On Saturday, May 23, 2020, Father Paul Flood checks social distancing measures in preparation for Monday’s planned resumption of daily Mass at St. Benedict Catholic Church in Johns Creek. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Miranda Mack McKenzie, a spokeswoman for Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church in Atlanta, still believes it’s too early to return to the church building. For now, she is comfortable dressing up to watch services online.

The church has a three-phrase plan to eventually reopen, perhaps as early as June 7.

“Our church has a safe plan for reopening,” she said. “We meet every week to talk about what things need to be in place to reopen. We’re monitoring what the health officials are saying. We’re not distracted by our president or our governor. We are mainly concerned about members of our congregation and their health. We’re don’t want to endanger them in any way.”

Like others with plans, there will be spaced seating, no nursey or children’s service or physical contact.

David P. Gushee, a professor at Mercer University and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life, has his own ideas about why the president is so adamant about reopening churches.

Evangelicals, particularly whites, provided a strong base for Trump’s first presidential campaign and he is counting on them to help in his push for a second term.

“I believe that it is a matter of perceived religious liberty — we should be free to open, we should not be fettered by state intervention,” Gushee said.

“Perhaps also prestige — what we do is just as important as any store or business. And also the needs of their people — our flocks need to get together again. And church self-interest — if we stay closed much longer it may really hurt our survival or numbers. And finally — because many conservative evangelicals are lockstep with President Trump, his agitation for opening has become theirs.”