As guidelines to help places of worship reopen safely were released by the state this week, some Turlock congregations are preparing to open their doors while others will wait to assemble.
California on Monday announced a framework permitting counties to allow in-person religious services once more, including restrictions that limit the number of worshippers to 100 or less, limit singing and recitations, require the taking temperatures and no sharing of prayer books.
While the release of the guidelines was cause for celebration at many churches throughout town, one of Turlock’s largest congregations is holding back on reopening, or “regathering,” as New Life Christian Center executive pastor Brett Avery prefers to call it.
“The phrase that’s popular in the community is, ‘When are you going to reopen?’ As a church we never actually closed — we just went to a different form of communication,” Avery said.
There are about 2,500 congregates who attend church at New Life, which previously held three weekend services prior to the coronavirus pandemic. In order to abide by the new requirement of only 100 people worshipping at one time, the church would have to hold 15 or more services on Sundays, Avery said.
“For many churches it’s a blessing and they can start meeting again, but for us at New Life it’s not very practical,” he said. “Pastor Dave is a phenomenal communicator, but I think he would get tired.”
Houses of worship are some of the latest entities to reopen, as California begins to ease its stay-at-home orders that shut down all but essential businesses in mid-March to help curb the spread of COVID-19. Like the restaurants, retail establishments, salons and barbershops that have also received the go-ahead to open with precautions, those who return to church services where available will have to wear masks and make sure they socially distance themselves from other congregates.
The new guidelines didn’t come as a surprise to Avery, as he sits on the committee that helped form Stanislaus County’s safe worship guidance. New Life hasn’t set a date for when the congregation can gather once more, but will only do so when everyone can come together safely. The stay-at-home orders have been tough on New Life congregates and Christians around the world, Avery said, who are told in the Bible to assemble together.
“Obviously from our faith perspective as Christians, we believe that God designed us to live connected in two ways: connected to Him spiritually and connected to each other relationally,” Avery said. “When we live in isolation it’s just not good for us. It’s tough. This COVID crisis is a unique moment for a Christian because our faith commands us to assemble, but it also commands us to respect the governing authorities that God has put over us.
“It’s more than just, ‘I miss friendship.’ It’s a part of our faith that’s currently unfulfilled and that’s part of how we worship and engage.”
To try and keep the New Life congregation connected during the pandemic, the church hosts online services and Pastor Dave Larson often goes on Facebook Live to share messages of hope. Many other churches have done the same, like Sacred Heart Catholic Church and First Presbyterian Church.
Pastor Craig Wright said that a majority of Presbyterians, including his own congregation, are elderly. For that reason, First Presbyterian is sticking to online services for now and plans to reassess in July. In addition to online services, the church has asked churchgoers to tie a red ribbon in front of the church in order to celebrate Pentecost at a time when the congregation cannot gather.
“With us, it’s never been about can we gather because we could have. It’s about should we gather,” Wright said. “We want to keep our people as safe as possible. The beautiful upside — or downside — of all of this is we’re all learning how to connect online.
“Christianity is a religion on our feet, not on our seat. Being in the pews is nice, but that’s not the essence of why we are Christian.”
After two months of online Masses and socially-distanced confessions, Sacred Heart announced on Friday that in-person Masses would begin again June 13 after receiving a directive from Bishop Myron Cotta, Diocese of Stockton.
“We have waited so long to make this exciting announcement to our Sacred Heart Community,” the church said in a Facebook post. “Things will certainly look different as we need to follow the guidelines given from the Diocese. Please keep checking for updates as we continue to post procedures on attending mass.”
The Diocese of Stockton said in a press release that attending Mass in-person is not a requirement for Catholics at this time, asking the elderly and vulnerable to continue attending via technology. In order to prepare for the return of parishioners, Sacred Heart staff spent hours on Thursday deep cleaning and sanitizing the church.
“All of us are eager to return to celebrating the Risen Christ as a community. But we must ensure that we are doing so safely and with great care for the well-being of all our community,” Bishop Cotta said. “Much will be different when we return to Mass, but the most important thing is unchanged and unchangeable. Christ waits for us in the Sacrament, whether we participate in person or online. The love of God for His people, and the love of God’s people for one another, these are constants, even in a time of turmoil.”