US VIRUS WORSHIP

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the White House in Washington, May 22, 2020. President Trump urged governors on Friday to allow houses of worship to reopen immediately.

ATLANTA — For the first time in weeks, Jason Dees looked out as he preached Sunday and saw faces, instead of just a camera lens. The group of Christ Covenant Church worshippers was considerably smaller than before the coronavirus pandemic — 40 people this week, wearing masks as they sang and prayed, a small fraction of the congregation’s 500 members — but they were there.

“This is good for our souls,” Dees, the church’s senior pastor, said. “This is right. This is good.”

Still, he told the gathering that it would be several weeks more, and maybe longer, before the entire congregation could be back together again. Most would have to continue watching online.

He and other pastors at Christ Covenant in Atlanta had drawn elaborate plans for reopening, talking to health professionals and other religious leaders. This was just the first phase.

The deliberations reflected the broader tension in religious congregations between the desire to worship together and fear of the consequences if they did not do so safely.

For the most part, churches across the country have not yet thrown open their doors. Instead, as in so many sectors of American life that have been disrupted, religious communities are stepping gingerly toward the post-shutdown world.

The coming days bring a significant test. Many houses of worship have laid the groundwork for returning, and expect to resume some form of in-person worshipping next week.

“Every church I know is working through a staging plan,” Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm, said in a statement, “telling their members what bench marks they are looking for to know when to regather, how they will then phase that regathering in, and what steps they will take to ensure safety when they do.”

The discourse has grown increasingly political. Conservative churches in states under stay-at-home orders have pushed back against restrictions on worship, and President Donald Trump weighed in on behalf of one of his key constituencies, threatening Friday to try to overrule governors who refuse to allow houses of worship to open.

“Some governors have deemed the liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship,” Trump said. “It’s not right. So I am correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential.”

Some faith leaders found a measure of comfort in the president’s words, hearing an acknowledgment of religious liberties and an affirmation of the central role worship holds in the lives of millions, especially at a time of confusion, pain and loss. Still, many are preaching caution. Though religious services have already been allowed to resume in more than half the states, many congregations have decided to remain closed for the present.

“The government simply cannot tell any religious entity how to operate,” said Jason Cruise, the senior pastor at ClearView Baptist Church in Franklin, Tennessee, adding that his remark applies to the federal government as well as “rogue mayors and rogue governors across the land who were literally trashing the Constitution.”

His congregation, which typically has more than 800 people in its weekly services, is reopening next Sunday with social distancing rules. Masks will be optional.

“Here’s the phrase we keep using: Use your own judgment,” Cruise said. “If you want to come back, come back. If you don’t want to wear a mask, don’t wear a mask. We’ve tried to empower people. You’re a grown adult. You know what’s best for you.”

Even so, there were fears of grave consequences. Houses of worship have the potential to help the virus spread widely through a community, given the close quarters, robust choirs and rituals like communion. Many churches, including mainline Protestant denominations, have congregations that skew older, a demographic especially vulnerable to the virus.

In March, the first confirmed coronavirus case in Washington, D.C., was an Episcopal pastor who had celebrated communion for hundreds of worshippers before his diagnosis was confirmed. In May, health officials reported a high COVID-19 rate at a church in Arkansas where two people had attended services and Bible study sessions in March. Thirty-five of the 92 people who attended the same events caught the virus, and three died; they in turn were linked to at least 26 more cases and one death in the community.

A Catholic church in Houston reopened May 2 for limited Mass, but closed again after five leaders tested positive for the virus last weekend, following the death of a priest who had received a diagnosis of pneumonia.

“The moral, safe choice is to wait,” said Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr., who presides over the Church of God in Christ, a historically black denomination with about 6 million members worldwide. The denomination has urged pastors to not begin to reopen until at least July.

“We don’t think now is the time, and neither do the scientists and doctors we consult with,” Blake said.

About half a dozen of the denomination’s 200 bishops have died of the coronavirus, he said, adding, “The black pastors seem to have a heavier responsibility now, since our statistics are so much higher.”

Many houses of worship are pushing ahead with reopening. They have been mapping out new seating arrangements or foot traffic flow, and canceling fellowship hours and other events where congregants might have been tempted to mingle in enclosed spaces.

In California, more than 1,200 pastors have pledged to hold services for the Pentecost next Sunday, challenging Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order limiting such gatherings. A Pentecostal church in Chula Vista, near San Diego, mounted a legal battle, arguing that the governor’s order violates their right to freely assemble, but the governor’s order has so far been upheld in court.

Trump’s message has also had an impact: On Saturday, Minnesota announced that it would lift restrictions and allow houses of worship to open at 25% of capacity, if they follow public health guidelines. Some Catholic and Lutheran leaders had said they would return to in-person worship next week in defiance of Gov. Tim Walz’s previous order limiting group gatherings.

The National Council of Churches, a partnership of 38 Christian denominations, planned to hold a virtual memorial service Sunday evening. It was aimed mainly at acknowledging the grief caused by the virus as the U.S. death toll nears a grim marker of 100,000. But organizers have also cast it as a quiet rebuke of the president and others who they fear are moving too hastily and injecting politics into a process where it should not be a consideration.

“This has been weaponized to become a wedge in politics, and also in culture wars,” said Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton, the presiding prelate of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “No one is depriving us of our religious freedom.”

For many Muslims, this year’s Eid al-Fitr, the festival of breaking the fast, closed a difficult Ramadan. A time of family gatherings and crowded mosques was devoid of those things this year. Many religious centers opted instead to stream Eid prayers online.

“We still tried to make the best of it,” said Dzemal Bijedic, a Muslim police chaplain who helps run the charity arm of the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis, known as House of Goods. “Everything is a test from God. It kind of teaches us to remember those who don’t have anything, who struggle on a daily basis.”

Umar Lee, a volunteer with House of Goods, said that this Ramadan has helped put things in perspective for him. “At the end of the day, we’re eating, we’ve got good St. Louis tap water, and we’re comfortable,” said Lee, 45.

There is one point of widespread agreement: Religious community has a physical component, but ultimately its meaning is far deeper.

“That unity, you cannot dissolve that,” Eaton said just after signing off from a virtual service Sunday. “Not even a little thing like a pandemic can break us apart.”

Yet there is comfort in community.

“I really believe the church — it is the people,” said Dees, the pastor of Christ Covenant, a 2 1/2-year-old congregation that worshipped on a middle school campus before the virus emerged. “It’s not the preaching, it’s not the event, simply. It is the fact that people are gathering together and worshipping the Lord.”

At the start of his sermon, he mentioned a powerful lesson delivered by the pandemic. The distance and isolation, with their heavy spiritual and emotional toll, reminded him how essential it was to assemble for worship.

“This is a privilege,” he said, “just even to come together.”

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