Churches mask up, close doors as virus spikes

New mask recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the rise in the delta variant of the coronavirus affect churches’ decisions on in-person worship and safety protocols. (Pews image by Andrew Seaman, courtesy of Unsplash; mask image courtesy of Pixabay; graphic by Laurens Glass, UM News)

Rev. Hammett Evans knew his Arkansas church needed to make a change after five fully vaccinated worshippers tested positive for COVID-19.

The five experienced mild symptoms or none at all, said Evans, senior pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas.

“The message they want to get out is that the vaccines work,” he said.

However, he and his congregation weren’t taking any chances. For the week of July 11, Asbury went back to online-only services to ensure the outbreak did not spread further. When in-person services resumed in mid-July, the church required worshippers to wear masks and keep physically distanced. The church youth group also began meeting outside again.

“I think we just want to be as cautious as possible, especially since we have children with us,” Evans said. The under-12 youngsters in the church and its preschool are not yet eligible for the vaccines. “We want to take care of the kids.”

Asbury turned out to be ahead of the curve.

With the more-contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 surging across the United States, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now urges even vaccinated people to mask up again in high- and substantial-transmission areas.

Many United Methodist congregations are following that advice, with encouragement from their bishops. Some churches have gone even further: opting to return to online-only activities.

Whatever extra precautions they are taking, church leaders also are working to get more shots in arms. Preachers are trying to ease fears and correct misinformation. Congregations are organizing clinics and offering gift certificates as incentives for vaccine holdouts.

The current United Methodist efforts are part of a long tradition. People called Methodists have championed public health going back to John Wesley, who established London’s first free medical clinic.

Asbury is among the churches planning its own clinic.

“I hope more people will get the vaccine,” Evans said. “That’s really the way through it.”

Halfway across the country, Rev. Nicole Reilley is also contemplating whether her congregation  (Valencia United Methodist Church in California) should also go online only. Like the rest of Los Angeles County, the church has been under an indoor mask mandate for weeks.

“We live in a very warm community, so while we would like to consider going back outside for worship, we would need to consider how to make that happen,” she said. At this point, the church is taking a wait-and-see approach.

Crenshaw United Methodist Church, also in Los Angeles County, now meets online every Sunday and in-person every other Sunday.

Rev. Royce Porter, the church’s lead pastor, said the summer heat and the Delta variant’s rise have led many of the church’s ‘seasoned saints’ to stay home.

“This setback does affect our attendance on Sunday, but it does affect our ministry as the hands and feet of Jesus within our community,” he said. “We learned for over a year now to do church online.”

Even churches that have more fully reopened continue to see more attendance online than in person.

Among those congregations is Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church in Atlanta. Located within easy view of the CDC complex, the church never stopped wearing masks. However, congregational leaders are now seeing how cases progress to determine whether they can drop mask requirements in September, said Rev. Mark Westmoreland, the church’s senior pastor.

In the meantime, the church’s online presence remains strong. COVID-19 lockdowns have forced the church to up its technological game, Westmoreland said. But like other pastors, he worries whether the church is losing the routine of being physically together on Sunday mornings.

“I believe strongly that gathering in person can never be fully replaced by an online experience,” he said, “but I know also that online worship is here to stay.”

First United Methodist Church in Bentonville, Arkansas, like Glenn Memorial, is also adjusting to the demand for online connection.

Rev. Michelle Morris, the Northwest Arkansas congregation’s lead pastor, emphasized that ministry continues amid the safety protocols.

“We continue to have an active food pantry, and we are gathering supplies such as hand sanitizer and wipes for teachers at the two schools we have relationships with,” she said. “We are also working at converting many of our meeting and classroom spaces to accommodate our hybrid reality.”

Still, pastors acknowledge many vaccinated people feel frustration that they must don their masks again.

Evans, the Little Rock pastor, sees God at work in the development and distribution of vaccines.

Some vaccine reluctance reminds him of a story preachers like to tell about a man caught in the flood. As the waters rise, the man keeps refusing people’s offers of help and instead says, “I have faith that God will save me.” Ultimately, the man drowns. He asks God, “Where were you?”

God responds by pointing out all the ways God tried to save the man, sending him people with a canoe, a motorboat and even a helicopter.

“I think the vaccine is like that,” Evans said. “God is saying I sent you this. Take advantage of it.”

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