When the pandemic started, churches faced the challenge of defining what it means to worship together while apart.
Now, even as Virginia slips into phase three of reopening, churches continue to find creative ways to reconcile their congregations’ need to be spiritually fed with the lingering threat of COVID-19.
Under normal circumstances, places of worship such as churches offer refuge for those seeking comfort, peace, structure and community. But the pandemic closed the doors of churches throughout the country.
“One of the things that certainly came out of that was just a sense of determination,” said Reverend Richard Sandberg, senior pastor of Louisa Baptist Church. “We were going to continue to find ways to support each other, to support our community, and we got real creative on ways we could do that.”
Tom Fursman, a deacon at St. Jude’s Catholic Church, said the church offered online services when the pandemic first started.
“It was an incredible service to the parishioners and a real spiritual help to them, being able to watch the mass livestream from their own parish, seeing their own parish priest and deacons,” Fursman said. “They were able to maintain that identity with the parish, which was a wonderful thing for them and for us.”
Many churches are still livestreaming services, while some have started to reopen and hold services as usual, encouraging churchgoers to wear masks and practice social distancing while kicking their cleaning protocol up a few notches.
St. Jude’s, for example, has pews sectioned off to encourage people to sit six feet apart. The church uses tape to let worshippers know where they should stand while waiting to be seated or receive communion.
Other churches in the area have decided to go a different route by offering drive-in services as an ode to theaters past.
“The church is not the building,” said Reverend Damaro Robinson, pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church.
Bright Hope started offering drive-in services on Easter Sunday, acting quickly after church leaders thought about what a church really is to the people.
“What this drive-in service gives us is the opportunity to fellowship with each other; show love and talk to one another; get the word of God and praise and worship still together; but using the best precautionary measures to keep everybody safe,” Robinson said.
Louisa Baptist Church came to a similar conclusion and started offering drive-in services on Mother’s Day.
“We really need this sense of connection with each other, even if we can’t be in the same room, even if we have to stay in our cars,” Sandberg said. “Just because the doors of the church are closed, it doesn’t mean that the church isn’t there.”
Robinson said that it took some time for people to adjust to this new way of conducting a service, but most have responded positively, including those who can hear the services from their porches. To him, this presents opportunities amidst challenges.
“Because we’re not inside or confined to a building … it’s a way to break barriers that need to be broken,” Robinson said. “When we started, there were people walking up from everywhere. People coming from all the houses around the community, just walking up to the worship service, of all colors, all races, all denominations.”
On one such Sunday, people joined the drive-in service wanting to be baptized that day, which Robinson considered a blessing. It did, however, come with logistical challenges.
“Our baptismal pool, like every other church, is only inside,” Robinson said. “We were trying to make arrangements to have people come back to be baptized, but they didn’t want to wait. They wanted to be baptized right then and there.” The church had to improvise.
“We filled up pitchers and buckets of water, sat the people in the chairs outside, put towels around them, and baptized them right there after they confessed the Lord Jesus Christ as their savior,” Robinson said.
He acknowledged that this didn’t follow the typical steps one would need to follow before being baptized, such as taking classes. However, convention doesn’t seem to be a trend of 2020, and according to Robinson, tradition isn’t either.
“We don’t have time to wait on tradition,” he said.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, the structure and security that society offered may have seemed invincible. It was shocking how quickly it all crumbled. For many, it felt like the world was ending, and though it wasn’t the end of all times, it marked an end to a time and how things were.
Until tradition catches up or people create new traditions, churches will continue to worship with masks on inside, outside, in their cars, on lawn chairs or on their back porches, finding solace and community wherever they can.