When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
This last week nearly every state in the country has practiced some form of “reopening,” following its own set of phases and preconditions to determine the safest way to allow for more mobility and business interaction. You can review the slide presentations for the State and the County.
I believe this has led to massive confusion. Guidelines are developed state by state, sometimes by city and/or county, and they are not consistent. I happened to go to an outdoor shopping area, to pick up some food at a very small takeout restaurant, who had two other customers, neither of whom were wearing masks. Actually, I felt most uncomfortable with one customer who was “wearing” a mask, pulled down around his neck so that he could speak vociferously and constantly as he moved back and forth around the food counter, at one point almost bumping into me.
The State of California allows for some variance in county guidelines. So, for instance, though the State allows for curbside retail business interactions, San Francisco does not. Though the State hopes that schools and colleges and universities may welcome students back to the classroom by late summer or early fall as part of “Stage 2,” Los Angeles County is including schools as part of “Stage 3.” And while the State lists FOUR phases, Los Angeles County lists FIVE—but on closer examination, it seems that “Stage 5” is simply the declaration of “fully normal operations,” whereas the State includes the opening of concerts, conventions, and live audience sports events as the “end of stay-at-home order.”
For churches, this has been confusing because, for instance, Los Angeles County does not mention in-person worship services. However, the State does, as part of Stage 3, along with hair and nail salons and movie theaters. Since the County lists salons and theaters in Stage 3 (along with schools), I believe that in-person worship is not allowed until “Stage 3,” and the State or the County are NOT giving any indication of a date for reaching Stage 3. Though I hesitate to anticipate anything since things change from day to day, I would expect that Stage 2, which has just started, will be settled and analyzed for Coronavirus increases before Stage 3 is considered.
The County continues to state, in an overview of the May 8th revision, “All indoor and outdoor public and private gatherings and events are prohibited.” And even though some retail shops have been allowed to open, they are not to allow customers inside the store.
As each sector reopens, the County has set protocols which will be tailored to its specific circumstances. I expect that when it is time for churches to begin in-person worship services, guidelines will be developed along these lines, including things like (not a comprehensive list):
- Protecting and supporting worker health and safety: supplying face coverings and requiring they be worn by all people coming onto the church campus
- Ensuring appropriate physical distancing: blocking off seats/pews so that household groups are 6-10 feet apart from each other
- Ensuring proper infection control: sanitizer dispensers everywhere; restricting self-serve food; reducing or eliminating contact in passing the peace, offering, and communion; restricting group singing or use of wind instruments; thorough cleaning of shared objects or spaces
- Communicating with the public: educating and gently enforcing proper protocols
- Ensuring equitable access to services for vulnerable populations: ensuring that all people are included in worship, including those who may still be discouraged from attending group events, such as people who are over 60 or have chronic health conditions.
At some point we may attempt to publish clear guidelines for reopening, but the guidance from the community has not yet settled, and I would hate to add to the confusion by making multiple changes in the time before in-service worship is allowed anyway. It does seem wise to provide worship that is accessed remotely for the foreseeable future. Several churches have already received requests that online worship continue even when in-person worship is restarted, and that would be great if churches can provide for both. Some churches may choose not to meet in person for a while, even if the ban is lifted, depending on the needs of their people. Last Tuesday, the pastors had a lively discussion of ways to make their worship services even more accessible, to people who do not have access to a computer, so people can listen to worship by telephone. It is workable, and in one of our churches, half of the members participate in worship by phone.
Even as we face more peer pressure to consider “getting back to normal,” I hope that we remember our work as Christians is not to simply go along with the crowd, nor is our faith dependent on access to a sacred building or ignoring safety considerations. In light of this time of Coronavirus, the familiar appearance of the risen Christ to the disciples reveals a couple of important details: the disciples chose to protect themselves from perceived threat by locking themselves in the house—and yet, Jesus came in.
This time allows us—forces us—to reform our understanding of worship, faith formation, and community. We believe that God is everywhere, so worship may occur anywhere, and providing for worship and faith formation at home is in fact a good thing. Community is not just who we see on Sunday mornings in the church building; there are many people who are hungry for the Good News of Jesus Christ who for whatever reasons will not come into our Sunday morning services in the sanctuary—perhaps they are the mission field we’ve been reading countless studies about.
One of the most difficult things is honoring life events without gathering as a people. This has been especially hard when people pass away, separate from their loved ones, and we cannot gather to celebrate their life as a group. This last week, my mother’s oldest friend passed away, and on May 3rd, Rev. Charles “Chuck” Hammond died. Chuck was a pastor of Trinity Presbyterian in Pasadena in the 1970s, and was elected General Assembly Moderator in 1980. A memorial service will be planned when we can gather in worship and thanksgiving for his life and ministry. While both passed away quietly at home, with family present, we pray for their families, along with all families who are mourning loved ones. Let us find ways to remember them and the ways they have been a blessing to us.
In Christ’s peace,