Shepherding the flock through a virus

Pete Caster/Lewiston TribuneThe Rev. James Green sits at the end of a row of chairs at Orchards Community Church on Thursday. Because of social distancing restrictions, the church has reduced the number of people allowed to sit in the pews from 300 to 150.

Chairs and pews are being spaced apart for social distancing; hand-sanitizing stations are being set up; in-church coffee bars are being closed down and messages regarding protocol are being sent out to members as churches in the area prepare to open for public worship for the first time in three months.

Although Idaho allowed churches to recommence regular worship services the first of May, Washington didn’t get the go-ahead until last week when Gov. Jay Inslee said those in counties that have reached the second phase of the reopening process may proceed. Even so, area churches have been cautious about resuming public gatherings with the threat of COVID-19 still hanging in the air, and some official openings may not occur until mid-June at the earliest.

The Rev. Gretchen Rehberg, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane that includes churches in eastern Washington and north central Idaho, said all congregations are required to follow state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, as well as her specifications, before reopening.

“Our congregations have continued to worship, simply in different ways, and have continued to serve our communities with our meals and food pantries and all the various ways we serve, so only our buildings have been closed,” Rehberg said. “So those congregations in places that are still in Phase 1 will need to worship outside for now. Those in Phase 2 will be allowed to move inside if and only if they meet the requirements, and some might choose to stay outside simply due to the fact it will be easier at first.”

Rehberg said some people might question why the Episcopal Church of the Nativity in Lewiston needs to worry about the Washington guidelines.

“Since the congregation serves the whole valley, it is important to follow the strictest rules,” she said. “The primacy of love dictates that all we do be in (service) to the welfare of our people. And if that means staying home and worshiping by electronic means, we do that.”

Holy Family Catholic Church in Clarkston also has been closed to in-house worship, even though Catholic churches across the Idaho border have been meeting together since the first of May.

Sharon Clizer, president of the parish board at Holy Family, said worship services will take place on the second weekend of June to give the church time to prepare for the opening.

“We’re just trying to figure this out,” Clizer said. “We’ve got a big parish, and everybody wants to come in.”

But because of social distancing guidelines, gatherings likely will be limited to 25 to 50 people at a time.

Congregants will be asked to wear masks and keep their visits to the church as brief as possible — meaning no lingering and visiting around the parish hall. People also will be asked for their contact information when they come in the door, she said, and those who have vulnerable health will be asked to stay away.

“I think most people will follow those kinds of rules, but how do you just say, `Sorry, you can’t come in’? I guess it’s up to each individual. God’s everywhere.”

Clizer said some of the people from Holy Family have been attending Mass at All Saints Catholic Church in Lewiston, but she thinks the Idaho churches may have opened too soon. She has been fielding calls from people “asking, `When are we going to open, I can’t stand this.’ I think God gives us the brains to decide what we should do, and he doesn’t expect us to put ourselves in harm’s way.”

In-person gatherings for the Clarkston United Methodist and Lewiston’s First United Methodist churches have been suspended until at least mid-June, said the Rev. Cody Stauffer, who leads both congregations.

The bishop of the Greater Northwest Area of the United Methodist Church “has put in place a phased plan for all churches,” Stauffer said. “These phases are separate from the stages or phases of any state government within that area.”

Each phase has stipulations to be met before moving to the next, he added.

“Currently we are still in Phase 1 — strict closure,” Stauffer said. “By the bishop’s direction, that stage is in place until at least June 15, with the possibility of being further extended.”

In the meantime, church leaders are trying to set plans for the following phase.

“So we will continue to meet online for worship for an indefinite period of time right now,” Stauffer said. “Likely my own two churches, based on the stages the bishop has put out and the number of folks at each church who fall into the at-risk category, won’t meet again until Stage 4, which has basically no restrictions, only discretion for those who are most at risk to attend.”

Stauffer said his staff has fielded a number of questions about when and how the churches might open and for the most part people are in agreement with the bishop’s plan.

“We want to be leaders in care and love, not leaders in cases of infections,” Stauffer said.

The Orchards Community Church on Bryden Ave. is one of the area’s largest congregations, and the Rev. James Green said he expects to open the doors to community worship June 21 and 22.

Training for church staff and volunteers has been scheduled to help them learn about protocols, which will include disinfecting the church space between services. Sunday worship will be expanded to three services from two in order to allow for smaller groups to gather at one time.

People will be directed to separate entrances and exits, and the church’s coffee bar will be closed for the time being.

“We’re making some efforts wherever we can to obey social distancing protocols,” Green said.

Online services that have been conducted throughout this period will continue for awhile for those who cannot or choose not to attend in-person services.

Green said the past three months have been “very, very hard, honestly. This has been wildly inconvenient, but we’re super blessed. We see people using this as an opportunity to grow in their faith” by reaching out to others, checking on family members and offering to help those who need it.

Although Green said he does not necessarily agree with Gov. Brad Little’s reopening plan, he respects the governor’s decisions and understands the need to follow them.

“Never in history have you seen where you quarantine healthy people,” he said. “But I do respect his position and Scripture is clear on obeying (civil) authority. As Christ followers we’re using this time to put others before ourselves, and we’re trusting God in it.”

Hedberg may be contacted at kathyhedberg@gmail.com or (208) 983-2326.

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