SIERRA VISTA — When COVID-19 concerns caused churches across the state to suspend in-person services last March, clergy turned to technology to deliver messages of hope to their congregants.

Although Governor Doug Ducey lifted his stay-at-home directive several weeks ago, some churches are taking a cautious stance by watching coronavirus trends and are opting to remain closed, while others have opened with guidelines in place to protect worshippers.

“The Church as the living, breathing Body of Christ has never ‘closed,’” said Pastor Mark Perry, whose Sierra Evangelical Lutheran Church is still shuttered because of Cochise County’s spike in coronavirus cases.

“Although our buildings may have been shut, the hands and feet of Christ have continued to serve all in need…through the internet from homes and other spaces.”

The church voluntarily suspended its in-person worship services on March 22 and continues to hold services remotely out of concern for older members of the congregation, Perry said. About 71 percent of the church’s regular worshipers are over 65 and have underlying health issues.

“We’re still in the CDC’s Phase 1 definition of the pandemic response,” he said. “Now, as the trends continue to climb dramatically in our county, both in new cases and in deaths, our Response Team and Church Council believe it’s still too early to resume in-person worship.”

Meanwhile, Shiloh Christian Ministries has “cautiously opened” its doors again.

“We closed on March 23, because that was recommended by the state, and reopened again on May 31, with limited capacity,” said Pastor Erick Villalvazo. “So, for nine weeks we did not offer in-person Sunday services.”

Before reopening, Shiloh’s pastors held several meetings to discuss how to best follow CDC guidelines and examined practices for keeping its church family as safe as possible.

“We are taking this pandemic very seriously and have precautions in place that we follow.”

Rows of chairs were removed from the sanctuary to help accommodate social distancing, and some CDC recommendations are being enforced, Villalvazo said.

“For purposes of social distancing, we have chairs arranged so families can sit together, and we have lone chairs for individuals. We also have an overflow room for anyone who may feel uncomfortable in a large crowd.”

Before COVID, the church had enough seating for about 300 people, but that number is now down to about 150 with the new seating arrangement.

“All Shiloh volunteers are required to wear face masks,” Villalvazo said. “We want to set an example through our volunteers, and we strongly encourage all of our congregants to wear masks. Most members of our congregation do wear them.”

Villalvazo said the church also advises worshippers who are over 65 to stay home, at least for now, as well as those with health risks.

“All of our services are offered remotely, so everyone can follow them,” he said. “I know people miss the fellowship, but I have concerns about risks to vulnerable members of our church,” Villalvazo said.

“I believe churches are essential. We provide hope, peace and connection through our fellowship. I’m glad that we’re able to reopen and I know church members are happy to be back, even with all the changes.”

Pastor Larry Whitney of Mustang Mountain Cowboy Church in Whetstone said the church closed its doors March 23 and reopened again on May 17.

While the church encourages wearing masks, Whitney said he trusts that people who are concerned about the virus will take the necessary precautions to stay healthy. Church members are free to sit where they wish. Social distancing is not a requirement.

“Like most churches in the area, we were already holding online services before the pandemic, so it was a smooth transition for us,” Whitney said. “Our services are on Facebook and our website. We also started offering additional live broadcasts on Wednesdays and Fridays, also on Facebook, which we’re continuing to do now.”

Whitney says the remote broadcasts allow the church to reach more people and do more teaching.

“Through all this, there were some good things that came out of the closures,” Whitney said. “Our grandkids came and stayed with us for awhile, so my wife (Theresa) and I did some homeschooling. It allowed us to reconnect with them, which was rewarding.”

While Pastor Whitney made the most of the closure, he admitted that he missed the fellowship with his church members.

“I enjoy being with the people, so that’s what I missed most about the closures,” he said. “God knows that we all need each other and should be gathering together, so it was tough. If you’re staying home out of being cautious, that’s fine. But people need some kind of outside contact with other people.”

For the most part, it’s business as usual at the Cowboy Church, with the exception of potlucks and other large social gatherings.

“We’re going to hold off on those kinds of events for a while,” Whitney said. “I’m just glad to be preaching from the pulpit in front of my congregation again.”

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