The COVID-19 pandemic touched every aspect of our lives, including our religious routines. Namely, how we do church. Over the past year-and-a-half, worship service for many congregations went virtual.
Churches already well-versed in the online world, like St. John’s Downtown, made the transition willingly and with little member pushback. Other congregations moved to “church on the computer” as Blueridge United Methodist Church longtime member Carstell A. Walker Jr. calls it, kicking and screaming.
All faith fellowships, however, longed for the return to face-to-face services in their respective churches, temples and mosques. And though some returned to such services relatively early, the majority took a more pandemic-cautious approach. For many of the more cautious, August is the month for the doors of the sanctuary to once again swing open so members can make a joyful noise unto the Lord together.
THE EARLY BIRDS
Blueridge UMC opened back relatively early, in October 2020 to 25% occupancy, with mandatory mask-wearing, entrance temperature checks and social distancing. Families were allowed to sit next to each other, but all others were spaced six-feet apart. And seating was only available on every other row.
“We removed all hymnal from the sanctuary to cut down on the possibility of spreading COVID while singing,” added Walker, a former church trustee whose family moved to Houston from New Orleans in 1974 and joined Blueridge the next year.
Walker said during most of 2020 Blueridge conducted phone bible classes and countless committee Zoom meetings, while also regularly distributing food to those in need. The church even welcomed a new pastor during the pandemic, Dr. Janice Gilbert. And on the first Sunday of July 2021, the Sunnyside-based fellowship held their first full capacity service.
As early a Blueridge was, the Fountain of Praise (FOP) technically opened for face-to-face worship even earlier.
“We re-opened in June 2020 to host the George Floyd Funeral and Wake with several COVID precautions in place,” said pastors Remus and Mia Wright. “With much prayer and consulting with local authorities and the health department, we were confident that we had the proper protocols in place.”
Like Blueridge, FOP opened in October 2020 at 25% capacity after dealing with the congregational challenges brought on by the pandemic.
“The Fountain of Praise is a loving congregation, and historically we socialize in the lobby,” said Mia Wright. “The manner that we fellowship had to be adjusted to stress social distancing. We realize that the threats of COVID-19 are severe, and we continue to emphasize the importance of a healthy spiritual life.”
Still, FOP members were ready to come back “home.”
“During COVID, we amped our social media connectivity and personal contact by making phone calls to a high percentage of our congregants. Despite these efforts, people missed connecting and seeing each other. Many were ready to be together to experience the presence of God in the presence of others. There is something about the congregational experience that cannot be expressed online,” shared Dr. Remus Wright.
The Wrights acknowledged that many FOP members experienced the convenience that comes with service on demand (watching it at a convenient time) and found that they can grow spiritually online and in person.
The pair added, “It will be interesting to see how this hybrid dynamic plays out in the future of the church.”
St. John’s Downtown, the Luke Church, the Shrine of the Black Madonna and others are planning to resurrect in-person worship in August.
Dr. Rudy Rasmus, who shepherds St. John’s along with his wife Juanita and their dynamic ministerial team, reflected on pandemic lessons learned as he prepares for their congregation’s first service back in the sanctuary Sunday, August 1.
“We’ve learned several things. Number one, the cover has been snatched off the reality that a building isn’t required for a faith practice. Number two, clergy leaders are, if they were honest, more reluctant to go back [to in-person church] than many of their parishioners. Number three, I don’t think we have really embraced the death toll in the Black community,” said Rasmus, bemoaning the lack of Blacks getting vaccinated and other vulnerabilities that place Blacks at risk of contracting the virus.
Rasmus contends the pandemic brought several unintended consequences, including a break from the normal pastoral time ritual, and others.
“It was a heartbreak because we were disconnected in terms of our physical presence, but I think the institutional church gained some ground, whether it’s willing to take that learning and move it forward or not, that’s going to be the question.”
Rasmus says many churches discovered the vulnerability of being “tethered to an emotional call and response with one talking head” compared to faith institutions “prepared to pivot to a more film-based approach to faith practice.”
“So here we are, a year and a half later, and one of two things have happened. Either churches have made the investment in technology, which is the future of faith practice, or they have minimized their investment, minimized the production value of their worship experience and are waiting on what hopefully will be a return [pre-pandemic church realities]. But here’s the deal, man. Nobody really knows who’s coming back and at what numbers.”
Dr. Timothy W. Sloan, pastor of The Luke Church, located in Humble, hopes their baby-step approach to re-entry provides his parishioners with a clearer picture of what to expect on Sunday, August 1, the date his church officially re-opens to the maximum.
“About three months ago we started a staggered approach to re-entry with twice-a-month in person services,” said Sloan, who added that approached helped his congregants keep an eye on local and national COVID trends and get a temperature check regarding how members would respond to coming back.
“That approach has gone really well. We’ll return to services as normal on August 1 with two services, at 8am and 10am” without the registration required for their lead-up services, he shared.
Sloan says his members are sensing on a national level that the present pandemic reality has swung closest to “some sense of normalcy,” and that Luke Church members are ready to be fully reunited.
“Members are excited to see church family members they haven’t seen in a while. The importance of corporate worship, especially in the Black Church, is really important. We’ve done much to poll our members and I haven’t heard of any who are hesitant.”
Their first service back will be called Homecoming Sunday, focusing on everyone coming back into the corporate space.
“One thing important to that first service, we will pause and remember the trauma we’ve gone through, remember loved ones we’ve lost. Reflect on what we’ve been through to get to this moment.”
Similarly, the Shrine of the Black Madonna, which has tentatively scheduled its return to full, in-person worship, will have its entire first service dedicated as a memorial to those loved ones members lost during the pandemic.
“So many people haven’t had a chance to fully grieve those they lost,” said the Shrine’s senior pastor Kalonji Jones. “We want them to know that we haven’t forgotten their loved ones, and neither have we forgotten to trauma that many of us still carry.”
According to the Shrine’s executive pastor, Djenaba Akida, the Shrine, which has churches in Detroit, Atlanta, Calhoun Falls, SC and Liberia and Ghana West Africa, not only offered a virtual worship experience, but the Houston fellowship stayed busy and connected to community by regularly distributing food, operating its Buy Black Marketplace outside rather than inside and served as a Harris County voting location.
“Like most other congregations, we’re ready to get back to an in-person worship and feed off the energy and Holy Spirit that is always so powerful where two or more are gathered together in the Lord’s name,” added Akida.