After Weeks on Zoom, Churches Consider Plans to Reopen

Manuel Cuzco, 63, who lives nearby, kneels on the steps of St. Sebastian Roman Catholic Church in the Woodside neighborhood of Queens, March 22, 2020. (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)
Manuel Cuzco, 63, who lives nearby, kneels on the steps of St. Sebastian Roman Catholic Church in the Woodside neighborhood of Queens, March 22, 2020. (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

When everything began shutting down back in March, Steve Wiens thought he would be leading church via Zoom for two, maybe four, weeks.

Members of his church, Genesis Covenant in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, rose to the challenge. They celebrated the Eucharist from their kitchens, with coffee and doughnuts, Capri Sun and Oreos. They divided themselves into small groups across town to keep tabs of who needed groceries or supplies.

“We’ve somehow maintained a real intimacy and sweetness because we leaned into the values that always held us,” Wiens said.

But as the weeks have turned into months, and Zoom fatigue is settling in, many church leaders are contemplating how — and when exactly — to reopen. This week, Wiens mapped out a four-stage plan of what a return to safe in-person worship might look like. Maybe by July they could worship in socially distant groups of 50, he guessed, and maybe they could lift all limits in the fall.

“That may be optimistic,” he said. “What we are doing right now will change how faith is expressed in worship, whether we like it or not.”

After being closed for in-person worship for nearly two months, churches across the country, like many businesses, are wondering how to operate in the longer term. It is a practical, political and spiritual question, all rolled into one.

As government officials across the country announce a range of plans to reopen parts of the economy, church leaders are reacting in a similarly patchwork fashion, sometimes in concert with official guidance, sometimes in opposition to it.

The issue of in-person religious gatherings is politically charged in many places. Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to meet with faith leaders in Des Moines on Friday to discuss reopening religious services, another sign that the administration sees churches as allies in its efforts to reopen the country. Last week, Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa announced that she would lift restrictions on public religious gatherings, as long as they followed sanitation and social distancing guidelines.

Some conservative Christians argue that stay-at-home restrictions have limited their religious freedoms. In California, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday that Gov. Gavin Newsom was allowed to ban church assembly to protect public health, after a small evangelical church in the San Joaquin Valley, Cross Culture Christian Center, had sued him last month.

In Fresno, Jim Franklin, pastor of Cornerstone Church, announced this week that he planned to reopen his doors to in-person worship on May 31. He is part of a growing group of evangelical pastors across the state who are working with a law firm to urge Newsom to allow churches to open along with other essential businesses.

“We want to keep people healthy — mind, body and spirit,” Franklin said. “If people can be safe at a big-box store, if hundreds of people can gather there to pick up home improvement items, I think the church can also do it safely.”

Cornerstone plans to require socially distant seating for the about 3,000 people who usually attend services each week, and the church will not permit handshaking or fellowship times, he said.

“We are asking those who are vulnerable not to come,” he said.

But other pastors in Fresno see things differently. Paul Lawrence Binion II, who leads Westside Church of God, a Pentecostal church, said he was “nowhere ready” to reopen his church, which drew about 500 people every Sunday before the pandemic.

“The testing is not accessible, especially in our community, which is largely African-American and Hispanic,” he said. “Until I feel certain things are good, we are not coming back together, because I am the shepherd. The pastor is the shepherd who needs to look after his people.”

His church, which has a large population of older adults, has been holding worship services, Bible studies and counseling sessions on Zoom, and it has been reaching even more people virtually, he said, as people are tuning in online around the country.

Episcopal bishops in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., said they would work together as they reopen, after a similar coordination effort by local government officials. They plan to start to allow limited indoor worship once cases and hospitalizations have declined for two weeks.

In South Carolina, Catholic parishes are planning to reopen for public mass later this month. Some priests are organizing plans for members to attend on a rotating basis, by last name and year of birth, to limit exposure.

But the pandemic has already been so financially devastating that the question of reopening is no longer even possible for some smaller churches.

In Georgia, one of the first states to begin widespread reopening for businesses, Abby Norman learned on Friday that the church she leads, New Hope United Methodist in southeast Atlanta, could not afford to stay open and would have to permanently close.

The church has only about 20 members, and has struggled in recent years to meet its monthly operating costs, about $2,000 a month, $2,500 including its food bank, she said. The church had relied on income from renting its space, often for film projects, but the pandemic has now made that impossible.

Even online services and online giving have not been realistic options, Norman said, as almost no one in the church can afford internet access or smartphones. Much of the church’s focus during the crisis has been on the food bank, which serves several dozen people in the church’s immediate neighborhood each week.

But if she could reopen for worship, she would be cautious. “Because my people are high poverty, there’s higher rates of asthma and everything that makes you high risk,” Norman said.

“I do not believe in opening the church if the most vulnerable could not come,” she said. “I do not think Jesus would be OK with that.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company