Worshippers in the Philippines adjusted to a “new normal” as some United Methodist churches reopened after a strict community quarantine was lifted in parts of the country.
Churches in the North and South Cotabato provinces in Mindanao and the Nueva Ecija province in Luzon were among those allowed to open under the Inter-Agency Task Force’s new modified guidelines to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
“Glory to God for the resumption of communal worship in our congregations. The excitement of our members is very evident,” said Bishop Rodolfo A. Juan of the denomination’s Davao Area in Mindanao, adding that he encourages members to follow the task force’s guidelines.
The modified general community quarantine means movement is allowed to return to normal but mask wearing, physical distancing and other health protocols are enforced. The Philippines has 37,514 COVID-19 cases and 1,255 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data, and parts of the country remain under the stricter enhanced community quarantine.
Genesis A. Sapnu, church council chair of Polomolok United Methodist Church in South Cotabato, attended services June 21, the congregation’s third Sunday of in-person worship. He said about 30 people were in attendance.
“We miss the kids and the older people,” said Sapnu. “The kids, who are not allowed to go out, are a great part of church music. No Sunday school yet and no Holy Communion yet.”
Under the modified quarantine guidelines, children under 21 and seniors 60 and older are to remain in their homes.
“We can't do anything about the new normal. It is what the present situation requires, hence it is incumbent of us to comply with the protocols for everybody’s safety,” Sapnu said.
He said church leaders and members worked together to ensure that safety guidelines were met.
“Markings were placed outside and inside the church, pews were rearranged; only two persons will occupy the pew with 1.5 meter-distance. Instructions and reminders are posted on walls, movement is organized in bringing offerings to the altar,” he said.
He said everyone wore a mask and those who entered the church were ushered directly to a hand-washing and foot disinfectant corner. They also had their temperatures taken with a thermal scanner and hand sanitizer was placed inside the church.
While Sapnu was glad to return to church, he noted the remarkable things that took place during the lockdown.
“God provided all our needs. Lockdown has enabled each family to share with other families, and, to our surprise, we were able to pool more (tithes, offerings and donations) than what we need to sustain our church and our pastor’s family.”
In Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija, the United Methodist City Temple reopened June 28 with four worship services. Nowella A. Reyes, a layperson who attended the 6:30 a.m. service, said things looked and felt different.
“I felt the lack of personal touch because of physical distancing. It is really different (than it was) during the old times,” she said.
Gillie Divine T. Pascua, whose team has been livestreaming the worship service at United Methodist City Temple during the lockdown, welcomed having people in the pews.
“I feel glad to see everyone again in face-to-face service after a few months of just seeing through the internet. Things are a bit more difficult than before, but I believe and pray that this, too, shall pass.”
Chona Panaguiton, church council vice chairperson of Kabacan Central United Methodist Church in North Cotabato, attended worship on June 21 and shared the challenges and adjustments in adapting to the guidelines.
She said some churches don’t have the financial capabilities to purchase needed supplies like thermal temperature scanners and hand sanitizer or to set up hand-washing stations.
However, she said, inspiration can be drawn from the pandemic, noting the “resiliency in faith of the Methodist community to keep on serving the Lord with the hope that whatever happens, there is God that will bring victory in this battle against this COVID-19 virus.” She commended the endurance of members to sustain the ministries of the church.
The Rev. Noel Alfonso, administrative pastor of Munoz United Methodist Church in Nueva Ecija, said 35 people — 50% of the church’s membership — attended worship service June 21.
“We are more inspired to evangelize and do a lot of discipleship because this pandemic teaches us to be more concerned with the needs of our congregation in spiritual matters,” he said.
“We became more disciplined compared to our practices before the pandemic. While it affects other people materially and spiritually, the Munoz UMC remained steadfast and strong in faith, because we believe the Lord will provide the most important thing to us.”
The Rev. Elijah Lorenzo, district superintendent, preached at Labi and Baong United Methodist churches June 21 in Nueva Ecija, where there is no pastor assigned. He said he had to wear a face mask because the buildings are relatively small.
Because children and seniors still can’t attend services, he said, the church is continuing to offer online worship. However, he noted that connection difficulties have kept some from accessing it.
“Reaching those who can't attend physical and online services is indeed a challenge,” he said, “(but) even if mass gatherings are prohibited, no one should stop us from worshiping the Lord.
“The church pressed on to preach the word of hope and faith to the world in crisis.”
Mangiduyos is a communicator from the Philippines. News media contact: Vicki Brown, news editor, [email protected] or 615-742-5470. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.