Churches mask up, close doors as virus spikes

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Key points:

 •  United Methodist churches are responding to the surge of the new more contagious delta variant of COVID-19.

 • In line with CDC guidelines, many have gone from encouraging to requiring masks. Still others are returning to online-only activities.

 • Congregations also are taking steps to reach vaccine holdouts.

The Rev. Hammett Evans knew his Arkansas church needed to make a change after five fully vaccinated worshippers tested positive for COVID-19.

The five experienced mild symptoms or none at all, said Evans, senior pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas.

“The message they want to get out is that the vaccines work,” he stressed.

However, he and his congregation weren’t taking any chances. For the week of July 11, Asbury went back to online-only services to ensure the outbreak did not spread further. When in-person services resumed in mid-July, the church required worshippers to wear masks and keep physically distanced. The church youth group also began meeting outside again.

“I think we just want to be as cautious as possible, especially since we have children with us,” Evans said. The under-12 youngsters in the church and its preschool are not yet eligible for the vaccines. “We want to take care of the kids.”

Asbury turned out to be ahead of the curve.

With the more-contagious delta variant of COVID-19 surging across the United States, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now urge even vaccinated people to mask up again in high- and substantial-transmission areas.

Many United Methodist congregations are following that advice, with encouragement from their bishops. Some churches have gone even further: opting to return to online-only activities.

Whatever extra precautions they are taking, church leaders also are working to get more shots in arms. Preachers are trying to ease fears and correct misinformation. Congregations are organizing clinics and offering gift certificates as incentives for vaccine holdouts.

The current United Methodist efforts are part of a long tradition. People called Methodists have championed public health going back to John Wesley, who established London’s first free medical clinic.

Asbury is among the churches planning its own clinic.

“I hope more people will get the vaccine,” Evans said. “That’s really the way through it.”

For now, Dellrose United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kansas, is one church that’s going back to being mostly online.

Dellrose had resumed in-person worship on Mother’s Day. But on Aug. 1, the church with hundreds of members limited attendance in worship to 50 and the choir did not sing.

The Rev. Kevass J. Harding, the pastor, said it was a tough decision but congregants received the change well. “They know it’s real,” he said. “They’ve seen it affect their friends and families. They appreciate that we are erring on the side of caution.”

Dellrose also is applying for a grant from the Kansas Leadership Center to provide vaccine recipients with gift cards.

“We as a church have to be adaptable,” Harding said. “We live in a changing world.”

Halfway across the country, the Rev. Nicole Reilley is also contemplating whether her congregation — Valencia United Methodist Church in California — should also go online only. Like the rest of Los Angeles County, the church has been under an indoor mask mandate for weeks.

“We live in a very warm community so while we would like to consider going back outside for worship, we would need to consider how to make that happen,” she said. At this point, the church is taking a wait-and-see approach.

Crenshaw United Methodist Church, also in Los Angeles County, now meets online every Sunday and in-person every other Sunday.

The Rev. Royce Porter, the church’s lead pastor, said the summer heat and the delta variant’s rise have led many of the church’s “seasoned saints” to stay home.

“This setback does affect our attendance on Sunday, but it does not affect our ministry as the hands and feet of Jesus within our community,” he said. “We learned for over a year now to do church online.”

Even churches that have more fully reopened continue to see more attendance online than in person.

Among those congregations is Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church in Atlanta. Located within easy view of the CDC complex, the church never stopped wearing masks. However, congregational leaders are now seeing how cases progress to determine whether they can drop mask requirements in September, said the Rev. Mark Westmoreland, the church’s senior pastor.  

In the meantime, the church's online presence remains strong. COVID-19 lockdowns have forced the church to up its technological game, Westmoreland said. But like other pastors, he worries whether the church is losing the routine of being physically together on Sunday mornings.

“I believe strongly that gathering in person can never be fully replaced by an online experience,” he said, “but I know also that online worship is here to stay.”

First United Methodist Church in Bentonville, Arkansas, like Glenn Memorial, is also adjusting to the demand for online connection. 

The Rev. Michelle Morris, the Northwest Arkansas congregation’s lead pastor, emphasized that ministry continues amid the safety protocols.

“We continue to have an active food pantry, and we are gathering supplies such as hand sanitizer and wipes for teachers at the two schools we have relationships with,” she said. “We are also working at converting many of our meeting and classroom spaces to accommodate our hybrid reality.”

Still, pastors acknowledge many vaccinated people feel frustration that they must don their masks again.

Blame a very tricky virus that can mutate as it spreads. While infected vaccinated people were highly unlikely to transmit earlier disease variants, the delta variant’s high viral loads substantially increase the risk. Masks reduce transmission.

The Rev. Michael Roberts, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Conway, Arkansas, said his message is: “We want to love one another well, and if the request is that all of us wear masks, then we want to be part of that as Christians.”

His church already is adapting one of its best-attended services of the year — its blessing of the backpacks. At the service scheduled for Aug. 15, the church plans to have youngsters, teachers and school staff stand for the blessing rather than come forward, and everyone will need to wear masks.

Inoculations are ultimately the best way to fight the virus, giving it fewer places to take hold and infect others.

Arkansas Conference Bishop Gary Mueller estimates that about 90% of eligible United Methodists in the state are fully vaccinated. However, Arkansas overall has one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the U.S., with only about 37% of the population fully vaccinated.

The conference maintains a dashboard that tracks the number of COVID-19 cases and vaccinations by county. United Methodists in the state monitor the dashboard closely.

Mueller said he hopes United Methodists also can find a way to reach people outside the church who are reluctant to get the jab.

“I am going to have a hard time reaching an 18-year-old in a rural area or a 20-year-old in the city who feels bullet-proof,” the bishop said. “What we need are influencers in different communities.”

The Rev. Maxine Allen, pastor of Saint Paul United Methodist Church in Maumelle, Arkansas, hopes to be one of those influencers. Her church in suburban Little Rock is hosting back-to-school clinics specifically targeting 12- to 17-year-olds.

“We’re hoping that by targeting that age group, we’ll also get some adults,” she said. “We’re most concerned about our kids going back to school.”

Evans, the Little Rock pastor, sees God at work in the development and distribution of vaccines.

Some vaccine reluctance reminds him of a story preachers like to tell about a man caught in the flood. As the waters rise, the man keeps refusing people’s offers of help and instead says, “I have faith that God will save me.” Ultimately, the man drowns. He asks God, “Where were you?”

God responds by pointing out all the ways God tried to save the man, sending him people with a canoe, a motorboat and even a helicopter.

“I think the vaccine is like that,” Evans said. “God is saying I sent you this. Take advantage of it.”

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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