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Flattening the curve means keeping churches closed for now, leaders say


‘All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial’

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

Despite Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s desire to re-open churches for in-person worship on May 3, the session at College Hill Presbyterian Church in Tulsa voted unanimously to continue with virtual worship “until reason and science indicate it is safe for our members and visitors!” (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — For a couple of months now, Presbyterians and other faith groups have been staying healthy at home, washing their hands constantly, social distancing, taking part in virtual church through social media, wearing face masks for quick trips to the pharmacy or grocery store or even to walk the dog.

In Kentucky and in other states, more than 99 percent of churches remain closed to in-person gatherings. All are supposed to be closed, but some have chosen to defy their governor’s order to remain closed. On Easter, churchgoers in the Bluegrass State who held mass gatherings in their church buildings were instructed to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Now it seems defiance is going in the opposite direction as some governors are telling residents in their states they can soon return to church — in person.

In Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt has said he would like to see churches safely reopening by May 3, with guidelines left to the discretion of the churches. Oklahoma has confirmed more than 3,000 cases of coronavirus as of April 23, with at least 179 deaths, according to the New York Times database.

The Rev. Todd Freeman serves College Hill Presbyterian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Contributed photo)

The Rev. Todd Freeman, pastor of College Hill Presbyterian Church in Tulsa, posted on social media that this week the session voted to stay closed to in-person church activities “until reason and science indicate it is safe for our members and visitors!”

The vote was unanimous, Freeman said. “There was no question whatsoever. We were one of the first congregations to stop having people come for in-person worship. We realized that this was a bigger problem than we were even hearing about from the news. It’s the mindset of our session that safety comes first, and until the facts, science and reason dictate, we will remain closed.”

Freeman said he’s surprised that his brief social media post about the session’s decision for the church to remain closed has received 739 likes or responses. “People are thankful that what seems to me to be no big deal of an announcement has given them (a resource) they need to stay safe also,” he said.

With about 200 members on its roll, College Hill Presbyterian Church has been holding virtual services on Sunday mornings with downloadable bulletins to allow people to follow along in the order of worship. Before the coronavirus pandemic, average attendance was around 105. Its YouTube Easter service with virtual communion had 260 views.

The bulletin and video follow what a regular in-person service of worship looks like, Freeman said, which provides a sense of being present with one another.

Freeman does understand the need to get the economy up and running again, but the safety of church members and visitors must take priority, he said. The church has formed a re-entry team that will be looking closely at how several things may be done differently to ensure initial and long-term safety, after data shows the health crisis has passed. He hopes when that happens there would be a general “all clear,” rather than having to be overly protective — every other pew, masks, hand sanitizer — when people do come back.

This time of quarantine has been productive, with the church learning much about video recording and editing. Freeman said it’s been a steep learning curve that’s been worth it. “In a way more people are watching the YouTube video than would show up on a Sunday morning, so I think we are doing some evangelism,” he said.

He believes that even after people are able to worship together in person, College Hill Presbyterian Church will maintain a virtual presence. He has heard from several members who had stopped coming to worship regularly who have tuned in to services or participated in Zoom ministry meetings and adult church school.

The Rev. Aisha Brooks-Lytle is executive presbyter for the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. (Contributed photo)

The Rev. Aisha Brooks-Lytle, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, said churches throughout the presbytery have done a remarkable job making the shift from in-person to online worship. She said presbytery staff and leadership have been “astounded” by the ability of congregations to do what would have been impossible years ago, and for being creative, faithful, steadfast leaders during the pandemic crisis.

Brooks-Lytle said she has spoken with church leaders, ecumenical partners, hospital chaplains and denominational leadership about the news related to the reopening of Georgia businesses.

“No matter what happens in the business sector and community-at-large,” she said, “it is imperative for congregations and houses of worship to continue to refrain from large gatherings until a congregation can find a way to do so in a way that keeps people safe and can keep up the proper health standards in the midst of COVID-19.”

She explained what this means: “Churches cannot rush to go back to church business as usual.” It will take a “slow and staggered” approach for planning in-person worship that will “require patience, wisdom, public health expertise and a model for sustainability.” She provided an article by Ken Braddy Jr., which posed 24 questions for churches to consider before reopening.

“The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth to encourage them in their midst of differences on whether or not it was a good idea to participate in a practice that was offensive to some and not a big deal to others,” Brooks-Lytle said. “He offers a prophetic word that holds true for us as we strive to be a prophetic witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul reminds us that ‘all things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful, but not all things build up (1 Corinthians 10:23).’ Friends, it may be lawful to begin to open the doors of the church, but it is not beneficial for churches to open at this time when we think of those who could be put in harm’s way due to the coronavirus.”

When she had trouble sleeping last week, Brooks-Lytle decided to find out what clergy said when the influenza pandemic of 1918 closed churches. “While it is great to look to the wisdom of the past, I asked one of our own chaplains, the Rev. Hamilton Barnes, to offer a statement from his perspective as a chaplain at Piedmont (Healthcare),” she said. “He is side-by-side with health workers who are putting their lives on the line to fight against this virus, caring for the sick, and walking alongside those who are facing death.”

Here’s what Barnes had to say:

“Frontline medical staff are prepared and doing our best as we continue to put ourselves at risk to take care of our patients, many of whom are on a very long slow road to recovery — likely over months. The COVID-19 virus is still a concern and still infecting all age groups, especially young mothers, middle-aged, and the elderly. Also, know that doing the hard work of moving services online and out of sanctuaries did help slow the spread of the virus. Please continue keeping up this good work by keeping our most vulnerable out of harm’s way — while praying for grace, hope, comfort and peace.”

In summary, Brooks-Lytle writes, “Church, keep doing what you have been doing by praying, offering virtual services, being generous to those in need, and flattening the curve by staying at home.”

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