As churches across the United States reach a coronavirus fork in the road – to open or remain closed – there is no one-size-fits-all approach here in Brookings. 

Regardless of what approaches or actions are being taken, all mandates and guidelines applicable to battling the pandemic are being adhered to.  

GracePoint Wesleyan Church this spring moved to online services only, at 10 a.m. However, a “moving forward” plan, “phasing back to physical gatherings,” is in place with a best-case scenario calling for on-site services to return at 8:45 a.m. and 11 a.m. Sunday, June 7.

The Rev. Steve Norby, lead pastor at GracePoint, is seeing an easy, phase-in transition. “We’ve been doing this for a long time. It was sort of a natural transition. We do our part to ensure people’s safety.”

During the school year there were four Sunday services: three services in the morning, one in the evening.

Now the online service at 10 a.m. will continue. At the 8:45 and 11 a.m. in-person services, there will be “lots of distancing and some spaced-off areas.”

“On a normal Sunday when we’re rolling, there’s a couple thousand here,” the pastor explained. “That’s during the school year. Usually at this time of year we go down to 1,200 or so, 1,300. Half the people will go back to traditional services, half continue to attend online.”

There is some consideration being given to doing things outside on Wednesdays with lots of spacing, maybe in smaller groups of 10. 

A recorded message on the church’s website details the plan, asking the congregation to be “purposeful and prayerful” as members return to church services phased in onsite. Meanwhile, high-risk congregants are urged to attend online services. And all the congregation are encouraged to “ask God what the new normal should be.”

‘Calling us to be faithful’

“We’re hanging in there,” said the Rev. Norlita Kaul, interim pastor at First Presbyterian Church. She noted that she “had been on the job only eight weeks before we voluntarily kind of closed up shop and all the services and activities were stopped.”

However, on Pentecost Sunday (May 31) a service was held at the band shell in Pioneer Park. Congregants brought lawn chairs and their lunches; social distancing was maintained, and there was no sharing of food. Worship will continue each Sunday in Pioneer Park in June at 10:30 a.m. Zoom will be used in case of inclement weather.

Services can also be seen on the church’s website.

In looking further into the future, the church “session” (a body of elected elders) held a special meeting and “has begun conversations and making specific plans for reopening,” but no specific date has been set. 

Seeing that “God is calling us to be faithful,” Kaul explained “the stewardship aspect, (which) is not money and buildings; it’s people’s lives. … God is good.”

Love others

“May 17 was our first Sunday back,” said the Rev. Josh Robertson, senior pastor at Bethel Baptist Church, where just one service is being held at 10:30 a.m. “A good summertime number would be about 140 to 150. About 90 to 95 people attended services on May 17.” He noted that about 40 to 50 college students who regularly attend have not been there.

The pastor said the first two Sundays back attendance was down to about 60 percent: “It’s always a little hard to tell this time of the year, because people start traveling; but I would guess about 40 percent have not come back to an in-person service.”

Since there is only the one service, immediate disinfection is not needed. Continuing, Robertson noted “a number of things are in place to provide for social distancing.” 

“Every other pew is taped off,” he added. “We don’t pass an offering plate around. The doors to the building are propped open. No greetings, such as handshakes. We’re just trying to follow recommendations we’re seeing out there for businesses.”

Ushers in the foyer ensure that people don’t congregate there. And no childcare services are provided. 

 “We’re still providing services to be available online for people who aren’t yet ready to come (back in person),” he said. “In our communication with the church family, we’ve tried to make it very, very clear that if people don’t feel ready or comfortable yet, we understand; we’re not trying to rush or force anyone into a situation they’re just not ready for.”

Within his congregation, the pastor has seen “division about what people believe and don’t believe about the pandemic.

“So we’re just really encouraging our people to love others well, even though not everyone agrees on the details of this, what should and shouldn’t be done. Love each other really well as Christ has loved us … and give each other grace as well, even though we don’t agree on all of this.”

Church is people, not the facility

Since Easter, Sunday services of Peace Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) had been held in the church parking lot, with about 70 to 80 cars there, the Rev. Tim Rynearson, principal pastor said. Now the church has opened up, with attendance set for about half the congregation.

Service was held in the church on Sunday at 10:30 a.m. for the first time since the COVID-19 shutdown. An online service will continue to be recorded and put on YouTube, because some congregants are in long-term care facilities and not allowed out.

There will also be an outdoor service in the parking lot Mondays at 6:30 p.m., because some people are still concerned about in-church services and some people are gone over the weekend.

Rynearson added that his church also serves two other Missouri Synod congregations: Redeemer Lutheran Church in Flandreau opened on May 17, and Zion Lutheran Church in White opened May 10. While each church can seat about 100, attendance has been about 20 people in each congregation.

“We’re not going to have full services,” the pastor said. “We’re going to have shorter services, trying to work back into it.”

There were communion services on Sunday at the White and Flandreau churches, he added. But it will be a couple of weeks or so before the communion will be offered here in Brookings.

For First Lutheran Church (Evengelical Lutheran Church in America), the Rev. Dave Schoeld, pastor, has set no date yet for returning to worship in the sanctuary. At present the church is streaming two Sunday morning services: one traditional, one contemporary. Additionally, there’s one on the radio (KBRK) at 8:30 a.m. “for those who aren’t internet streamers.”

“We’re going to start a Saturday night service (on June 6) outdoors, using an FM transmitter,” the pastor said. “Communion will be done. People will be encouraged to bring their own bread and grape juice or wine.

“It’s a way for us to be together in a socially distant, physically distant way, while still gathering in a visible community,” he said. The service will start in the parking lot and on the grass.

In regard to opening the sanctuary for services, Schoeld said “a group of professionals in that kind of field is advising the congregation on safety policies and procedures. At this point not a lot of them feel comfortable returning to the sanctuary.” 

And the church council is supportive of that stance.

While Schoeld noted that “getting back to church is essential,” he explained that “the church is the body of people, not of the facility.

 “If the church is essential, we have to do everything we can to save the lives of those who would gather. If that means that we don’t put them in the same space to breath the same air for an hour it means that we care enough that we don’t risk their lives.”

And with all the prohibitions, cautions and social gathering restrictions – e.g., ushered in, ushered out; no hymnbooks; no bulletins; no singing; no speaking loudly together; no communion; no offering no coffee – Schoeld questioned: “At what point does it stop even feeling what you’re hoping to get when you come back to church?”

Sunday Mass optional

For the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, guidance for opening churches has come from Bishop Donald DeGrood. And parishioners are dispensed from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass. The Rev. Terry Anderson, pastor of St. Thomas More Catholic Parish, said he doesn’t know when that will be lifted. 

The church’s Mass seating capacity is 700. Anderson planned for a 30 percent capacity, 210 people, “in the church itself. Not knowing what might happen that first weekend (May 17), we set up the social hall so we could video it there.”

Under normal circumstances, a priest is limited in the number of Masses he is allowed to celebrate over a weekend. However, in recognition of the safety concerns brought about by the pandemic, the bishop waived that number. However, the parish council opted to keep the same number of four Masses per weekend, using the social hall if needed; it turned out not to be.

The first weekend, about 250 people (total) attended the Saturday and Sunday Masses; about 300 people attended the May 23 weekend and about the same number attended this past weekend. He hopes to see those numbers continue to increase.

Mass is also twice daily Monday through Friday and once Saturday morning. 

Anderson doesn’t see the bishop making Sunday Mass obligatory any time in the near future: “There are still a lot of people who are a bit anxious about it. If you are, don’t worry about coming (to Mass).”

The sacrament of Reconcilation (private confession) was never shut down because it posed no safety concerns. Three small funerals were held as well as three baptisms; the numbers in attendance caused no problems.

Since the reopening, a larger funeral attended by about 40 people was held; a couple weddings were planned. And with 55 children ready to receive their First Holy Communion, two Masses are planned for them the first two Sundays in June. However, additional Masses may be needed when people feel more comfortable coming back.

Finally, in another sort of slowly getting back to regular events, several people who have completed the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults will be brought into the Catholic Church at Mass on June 14.

Anderson said it was recommended but not required that people wear masks in church. He observed that more people did not wear them.

Contact John Kubal at jkubal@brookingsregister.com.

COURTESY OF: The Brookings Register

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