Worship Services Continue Despite COVID-19 Threat
Editor’s Note: Worship is resuming with some Protestant churches across regions and racial groups. Church leaders are bracing for a surge of COVID-19 cases as millions across the United States and beyond remain hungry for in-person connection with fellow believers. The risk of infection, even while wearing masks, sanitizing and social distancing remains. Health problems like anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol and drug abuse associated with social isolation are also growing. Graduate students in Michael Ray Smith’s online journalism class at Regent University, Virginia Beach, took a look at worship (both online and in-person) in their hometown communities and filed this report.
NASSAU, Bahamas—Close to the shopping district of Nassau, a Caribbean tourist mecca, nearly 40 parishioners wore masks and held Bibles at St. Agnes Anglican Church to attend services during the July Fourth weekend.
St. Agnes is one of thousands of churches that re-opened for worship this month although leadership there and across the U.S. and beyond is sensitive to COVID-19.
“This pandemic wasn’t going to stop me from worshipping the Lord this morning,” said Patricia Rolle, a member for four years at St. Agnes, as she walked through the church’s entrance.
Rolle waited patiently as members signed in and had their temperature checked to make sure no fevers were present. They sanitized their hands. The congregation fell into worship with shouts of hallelujah while maintaining social distancing, avoiding handshakes and hugs.
The church celebrated not just reopening but also the 47th anniversary of the Bahama’s independence, marked traditionally on July 10. Flags showing the Bahamian colors black, yellow, and aquamarine hung from the church ceiling. Participants wore black, yellow and blue outfits, some with matching brightly colored masks.
The congregation then stood, joyfully singing the country’s national anthem: “Lift up your heads to the rising sun Bahama Land.”
Archdeacon Keith Cartwright noted that the church holds up to 700 people, but with social distancing it can only accommodate 150 people each service.
“As Christians, we have become accustomed to being close to one another in the seats and pews,” he said. “However, to mitigate against the virus, we have marked the pews so that persons can sit at least six feet apart.”
More than 800 miles from Nassau in Suffolk, Va., members of New Mount Joy met for their first face-to-face service in early July—outside. Most members sat in their cars as if they were in a drive-in. The Rev. William P. Wiggins Sr., the bishop, and others worked to get the services open while keeping members safe.
“Our normal Sunday service would be to gather inside, have praise and worship; I would then speak the word for about two hours and then after that, we fellowshipped,” he said. “But because of COVID-19 and the increase of cases, we have service outside.”
COVID-19 cases in Virginia continued to increase this month, with Suffolk having a total of 635 cases and 29 deaths from the virus. No cases have been reported in the church. As their number of worshippers increase, the church continues to sanitize inside their building weekly, even though outside service is being held.
“It’s awesome to be able to get out during this time and spend time together worshipping and praising God, even if it’s in our cars,” said White, who is a deacon and has been attending the church for 24 years. “I actually enjoy the outside service, it’s really nice and refreshing especially on a nice Sunday morning, it is truly a blessing to be able to impact people from their cars.”
Despite the uncertainty of the pandemic, the church members are happy and hopeful, encouraging one another.
“We’ve never done this before,” explained Wiggins. “This church has been here for 30 years and it’s the first time we brought the word and worship outdoors while still staying safe; it’s exciting.”
JACKSONVILLE, Fla.— A little more than 450 miles from Nassau in Jacksonville, Fla., is Abundant Life Church of God in Christ where members donned masks to worship together.
“This physical building is not the church, but we are,” said the Rev. Milton Harmon, Jr, pastor of Abundant Life Church of God in Christ.
Harmon said necessary precautions are followed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including required hand sanitizing and sitting two seats apart. Most parishioners are grateful to meet again.
“I know what my God can do,” said Ophelia Mitchell-Simmons, a member of Abundant Church. “COVID may have restricted us from doing several things, but I know God will turn everything around.”
While she spoke, children nearby yanked at their masks. Some let their masks hang loosely.
“I will follow social distancing and follow face mask protocols while attending church services or working,” said Kevin Hill, a minister and member of Abundant Church of God in Christ. “But we have to believe and know who the ultimate healer is in these troubling times.”
Despite the worry, church members hugged each other one by one and enjoyed their service.
Students from Michael Ray Smith’s journalism class at Regent University who contributed to this story are: Jannique McDonald from Nassau; Arkeshia R. Holmes from Jacksonville, Fla.; Chandler Sherrod from Suffolk, Va. This article first appeared in Religion Unplugged.