How local churches are dealing with COVID-19
For the first time in nearly two months, members of St. Ansgar Baptist Church worshipped together in person on May 10.
Due to continued concerns about COVID-19, chairs were spaced farther apart for the Sunday morning service to allow families to sit together while still practicing social distancing.
“Us gathering here is a huge blessing,” Pastor Aaron Moore told the nearly 40 people in attendance. “Even if it’s a little bit different, even if we are spread out a little bit more and using 10 times more hand sanitizer than normal, it’s still a blessing to get together here.”
Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a proclamation at the end of April to lift some COVID-19 restrictions in the majority of Iowa’s 99 counties, including the one on religious gatherings, effective May 1.
Although the St. Ansgar Baptist Church has resumed services on a limited basis, some other houses of worship in Mitchell County aren’t opening their doors yet out of caution.
State leaders in a number of denominations, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the First United Methodist Church and the Catholic Church, have issued statements strongly recommending their congregations continue the suspension of in-person gatherings and services for the time being.
“As our national leaders live in denial of the extent of the COVID-19 Pandemic, we stand strong in diligently practicing social distancing and refraining from in-house worship at the same time as we advocate for the safety of those who are most vulnerable: the elderly, the poor, our health care professionals, the immigrant workers in our meat-packing plants, and our farmers, whose very livelihoods are threatened,” stated Bishop Laurie Haller of the Iowa Conference of The United Methodist Church.
Catholic bishops are praying for guidance, said the Rev. Raymond Burkle, pastor at Sacred Heart in Osage and the Visitation Church in Stacyville.
“It’s not easy having to make decisions like this,” he said.
However, the fact remains that Iowa hasn’t even reached its peak yet in COVID-19 cases, according to Burkle.
He said a few of his parishioners are a little upset, but he told them other denominations also aren’t re-opening churches yet.
Religious leaders from Iowa and the rest of the nation have been conducting services by themselves or with just a few others present and live-steaming them.
During his online Mass on May 3, which was Good Shepherd Sunday, Burkle said, “Sometimes shepherds have to make decisions that the flock doesn’t like.”
Burkle told the Enterprise Journal that part of him was hoping to reopen at least a little bit in May by having Saturday night and Sunday Masses only with just 20 to 25 people allowed at each service.
However, if more than the permitted number of people showed up, some would have to be turned away, according to Burkle.
“I wouldn’t want to do that,” he said.
Burkle would like to see restrictions on funerals loosened soon so up to 10 people can attend as long as they are family members and they practice social distancing by standing at least six feet apart.
By the end of May or shortly afterwards, the COVID-19 curve in Iowa hopefully will have flattened enough for Catholics to gather again in person for worship and “be somewhat back to a sense of normal,” Burke said.
Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church in St. Ansgar is planning to reopen this Sunday. Despite the church’s name, it’s affiliated with the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod rather than the ELCA.
Even though Gov. Reynolds has not set a limit on how many people can be in a church at one time, the Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church is limiting attendance at each service to 15 immediate family units.
According to information posted on the church’s website, instead of one big service on Sunday, there will be two smaller services – one at 9 a.m. Sunday and another at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Those who plan to attend one of the services need to call ahead to make a reservation. If necessary, more services will be held to accommodate everyone.
Worshippers will be required to follow a number of precautions, including wearing a face mask and staying at least six feet away from those not in their immediate family.
There will be no Sunday School or Bible classes in the near future. Fellowship time after services also is temporarily suspended.
The Rev. Mark Squire, the pastor at Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church, stated in a letter to the congregation dated May 8 that anyone who isn’t comfortable with coming back yet should not feel guilty about staying home. He noted online services and devotionals will continue to be offered.
“We want everyone to be safe and to have the opportunity to hear God’s Word and receive his gifts as they are able,” he stated.
At St. Ansgar Baptist Church, Sunday School and Sunday evening services will remain suspended through the rest of this month.
The wearing of face masks is encouraged but not required. Disposable masks are available at the door for those who want them.
Those who are experiencing cold or flu symptoms are encouraged to stay home.
About 60 to 70 percent of the congregation attended the service on Mother’s Day, according to Moore. He said all the feedback he received was “positive and thankful.”
“It was wonderful,” he said. “You could feel the sense of relief that many people had. Many people had great joy in getting back together.”
Moore also said it “felt like such a gift to be speaking to people face-to-face again.”