GREENSBORO — There’s a rift growing in churches across North Carolina.
When Gov. Roy Cooper unveiled a three-part plan for reopening the state in the wake of the coronavirus crisis — Phase Two went into effect Friday — church services were limited to no more than 10 people indoors to minimize the risk of infection from the COVID-19 virus.
That hasn’t sat well with many houses of worship, whose members say their constitutional rights are being denied. In recent weeks, churches in some North Carolina counties, backed by local sheriffs, have openly defied Cooper’s order.
Now that a federal judge’s order allows churches to open their doors once again, a question is being asked among those who regularly attend Sunday services and those who don’t.
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That depends on who you ask.
Late this past week President Donald Trump urged houses of worship to reopen.
Also this past week, the Greensboro Faith Leaders' Council urged congregations to "wait a little while longer to gather for face-to-face worship."
"While we uphold our cherished freedom of practicing religion, our choices and our freedom cannot come at the expense of the health and safety of others," read the statement, which was signed by co-chairs Rabbi Andy Koren, the Rev. Kim Priddy, and representatives of dozens of congregations.
"Early on in this crisis, several faith communities that held choir rehearsals, meals and services in person were very hard hit by the virus and spread it to others."
Locally, congregations represent two lop-sided camps — the few that will be worshiping in doors this weekend, and the many more who say that's likely months away.
“It will probably not be anytime soon,” said the Rev. Julie Peeples of Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro. “We do not want to reopen until we can offer hospitality safely to all, especially the folks who are vulnerable.”
Gate City Baptist Church, which is holding outdoor services, has a plan for their eventual return indoors.
“We feel like we can do a better job of spacing people than Walmart,” said Pastor Michael Owens, referring to select retailers that have been allowed to operate while most of North Carolina has been shut down since late March. “We are going to use the same stuff that Guilford County uses to clean ambulances. We are going to do everything we can.”
Like Gate City, a variety of churches have been cautious and circumspect, fearful of allowing parishioners, many who are older and more susceptible to the virus, the risk of infection. For them, it’s more of a public health issue than a religious one.
For other churches, though, it’s about basic rights. The rights they had been denied under the state quarantine.
Reidsville Baptist Church held services a week ago with the faithful in the pews and a choir in the stands. The congregation was reminded to maintain space between themselves and not hold hands.
Pastor Jerry Carter, also a Republican legislator, welcomed back those in attendance. Then he told church members that the standards which allowed grocery and ABC stores to welcome customers haven’t been equally applied to churches and their congregants.
“You can buy all the liquor you want,” Carter said.
For weeks, the Islamic Center of Greensboro has been connecting with members through social media. That’s not likely to change anytime soon.
“We are not rushing to make any decision,” said Moussa Issifou, the center’s president.
At St. John’s Anglican Church, members still recall the Rev. Mark Menees’ battle in 2009 with the H1N1 flu virus. He lost 60 pounds over 10 weeks.
St. John’s is open for now. But that could change.
“We said we are going to take this a piece at a time,” Menees said. “Every week, we’ve sort of looked at what the data suggests to us, with a good bit of caution.”
That caution will be applied next Sunday during Pentecost, one of the holiest observances in the Christian faith.
The offering plate won’t be passed, but placed on a stand. Parishioners will use masks while singing or chanting the liturgy. And, of course, seats will be placed 6 feet apart as mandated by state health officials.
Even the act of giving communion has changed.
“The priest will put the Host into the Precious Blood, place it on the lips of the communicant and then sterilize his fingers between each person,” Menees explained.
Menees, 70, was starting elementary school during the polio epidemic that swept the country during the early 1950s. Only time will tell how long the coronavirus will be here.
“If it goes in the other direction,” Menees said, “we will close again.”
As houses of worship have been criticized for holding services — just last week, churches in Arkansas and California were responsible for COVID-19 outbreaks — Peeples hopes people pray for those congregations that decide to open their doors.
“I do not agree with the decisions some churches are making to reopen now,” she said. “Our religious freedom is critical, but it comes with responsibility. We are not free to endanger the health and safety of others. ... No one has been prohibited from worshiping. No one. At the same time, I don’t believe that shaming each other and shaming other faith communities is at all helpful at this time.”
The pandemic has become personal for Peeples. Her husband, also in the ministry, was diagnosed with the respiratory disease.
“I was very afraid for him,” Peeples said. “But I was also very worried we might have inadvertently exposed others to the virus. I would not want any faith community to live with that fear.”
See how churches across the country are handling Sunday services in this Lee Newspapers interactive database:
This information is current as of May 20, 2020 and includes information from more than 70 communities served by Lee newspapers. Please check directly with the place of worship for any change in status or services prior to attending or tuning in.
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On a recent Sunday as he stood in Maranatha Fellowship’s pulpit, the Rev. Harvey “Chip” Rice, wearing his signature bow tie, started services with a gospel recording playing in the background while browsing the comments on Facebook Live as members joined.
He's asking someone watching to send a member whose having a birthday a cake emoji.
Usually, there’s a group of singers and a band backing him. And at any time, someone in the audience will be moved to shout “hallelujah!”
Not on this day. It’s just Rice.
“Can’t wait to see y’all again,” said Rice, looking into the camera.
This is now Sunday morning across America as congregations use Zoom, Facebook Live and other videoconferencing platforms to connect with their church. Some see pastors in jeans and T-shirts.
“I can go over to the building any day and work,” Rice said. “It’s the interactions. It’s being able to talk to people ... to see their faces when you are saying something that impacts them. That ‘aha’ moment when you are preaching.
“You miss the things that you do together.”
Around mid-March was the last time North Carolina churches gathered. When the world changed, churches not only went from open to closed, but had to rethink how to keep members connected.
“We think of the virtual as our new building,” said Alan Sherouse of First Baptist Church. “The Zoom accounts are rooms in our church where you can have meetings or host Bible study or prayer groups.”
On any given week, First Baptist members of all ages read prayers or play music from their homes as part of the service.
“It wasn’t the pastor’s offering, it was the church,” Sherouse said. “I think it’s also important that the congregation knows that the pastors are not the only ones leading in crisis and times of struggle.”
For many churchgoers, young and especially old, the livestream on Sunday morning has become their new normal.
“Our younger people are technologically savvy and said, ‘We can do this on Facebook,’” said Menees of St. John’s Anglican Church. “In the middle of Lent, I’m delivering the homily in front of an iPhone.”
In a letter to the congregation, Menees laid out how services will change in the post-pandemic world. It starts with an additional Mass to allow for social distancing. Between those services, the church will be cleaned. And hymnals won’t be used initially.
Sunday school. Fellowship hour. Any event where people congregate. All gone.
“We’ve really tried from a logistical standpoint to come up with every possible scenario that we could think of,” Menees said.
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While closed for worship, payroll and bills have continued to mount at many churches.
Churches are largely dependent on tithes, which traditionally is 10% of a person’s income, and other offerings to operate ministries that range from feeding the hungry to giving college scholarships.
But with pews empty, so are church coffers.
Many churches like Calvary Christian Center were already set up for electronic giving, although that doesn't account for other factors.
"Our church has been wonderful in the sense of giving … but the longer a person is away, I think the less likely they are to continue giving,” said Vince Hairston, pastor and founder of Calvary Christian Center on Air Harbor Road. “I think most churches — and I’m hearing this from my friends — have seen a 20 percent drop in tithes and offerings during this time, and I think that can expect to slide even further.”
As pastors like Hairston and his staff maintain connections with members through phone calls and social media, they hear the pain of lost jobs and reduced hours. Especially in the African American community, where the church has long been a refuge from life’s ills.
“It has completely devastated everything associated with African American culture,” Hairston said. “We’ve tried to improvise where we could.”
Hairston doesn’t expect to go back into the church building at least until August although he is considering outdoor services before then.
He and his elders also recently got a look at a proposal on how to conduct services in the sanctuary. It leaned heavily on having multiple services to spread out congregants, both literally and figuratively.
Hairston isn’t sure how that could be sustained over time.
“Is it last names A to D at the 7:30 a.m. service or by ZIP codes?” Hairston asked.
Temple Emanuel’s Fred Guttman, the senior rabbi, said he couldn’t imagine holding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which are in September, in the building. They are part of the holiest week on the Jewish calendar and regularly draw 1,000 people.
“That’s side by side,” Guttman said.
Guttman has been meeting regularly with an advisory committee that includes doctors, lawyers and others.
Someone recently inquired about holding a wedding there in the fall.
“I can tell you that I think the legal advice on that is not to do it,” Guttman said.
The shutdown stemming from the coronavirus has cost the synagogue some fundraisers. Much worse, Guttman said, is not being able to visit members in the hospital.
“Before this, if I went to visit someone in the hospital, it was really important to them,” Guttman said. “It was more important that I’d be there than one of their friends. As clergy, we represent something more than we really are.”
Because he knows a lot of people are looking to their faith while quarantined at home, sometimes alone, Temple Emanuel has begun posting more religious content online and, of all things, cooking classes.
“Rabbi (Andy) Koren has become a superstar,” Guttman said with a laugh. “I said, ‘You are the new Rachel Ray.’ We should say Reuben Ray in the Jewish community. I’ve known him since 1993. I didn’t know he was so telegenic, so personable on the screen.”
This Sunday, some churchgoers will be back in their old routines. Others will still be following new ones. Either way, churches will be open. The same, but also different.
“We are doing the best we can,” Guttman said, “but all of us would like to be back together.”
Contact Nancy McLaughlin
at 336-373-7049 and follow
@nmclaughlinNR on Twitter.