How churches are trying to return to normal as COVID-19 safeguards are rolled back

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    It’s 6:30 p.m. Thursday. A small crowd carefully shuffles into Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church. They sit limited to one person, couple or family per pew, with one pew blocked off between every group.

    As they enter, some drop donations into a basket at the entrance to the church, since the normal offering period won’t occur during the service. During Holy Communion, they each drink out of their own plastic cup instead of out of a communal chalice.

    For the faithful willing to take the risk of returning to church, it’s a moment of excitement.

    The Rev. Brian Crane, the pastor at Grace Evangelical, 3700 Washington Ave., Racine, said he was “very happy” when he heard his church could start celebrating with more than nine other parishioners again. “Like everybody else, we have concerns about the virus. At the same time, people’s emotional and spiritual health is important, too. It’s been hard not to have worship these last few months.”

    The City of Racine, which has a local Safer at Home at home order in place through the weekend even after Wisconsin’s statewide order was overturned, has issued rules to churches about how to legally reopen. It limits attendance to 25% of the building’s legal capacity, calls for people to remain 6 feet apart “as much as possible” and requires added cleaning.

    “We’re doing our best to honor the guidelines set for us,” Crane said.

    Although some claim that coronavirus-related restrictions violate the First Amendment’s freedom of religion guarantee, polls show most Americans have supported safeguards.

    According to a poll published earlier this month by The University of Chicago Divinity School and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, only 9% of respondents wanted places of worship to reopen unrestricted. Forty-eight percent of respondents said that places of worship should remain closed entirely, while 42% said they should be allowed to reopen “with restrictions” — as is happening in Racine.

    Capacity at Grace Evangelical is about 300. A typical service preceding the pandemich had about 100 parishioners in attendance, Craine said.  He said he is anticipating only about half that to show up on Sundays and even fewer on weekday evenings, allowing the church to remain within Racine’s restrictions.

    On Thursday, only about 10 people showed up in addition to a handful of church staff members and volunteers, indicating that many of the faithful would still rather celebrate their faith from the safety of their home.

    For the past few months, Crane has been preaching to an empty church via Sunday livestreaming. As often as four times a week, he would offer Communion service to a handful of parishioners. The church had not been allowed to have gatherings of 10 or more, but rarely had to turn people away; a couple services were canceled because not enough people signed up, a sign that many Christians would still rather stay home in safety than go to church for the time being.

    Church website, social media

    At Journey Church, which holds services at Dyer Intermediate School, 201 S. Kendrick Ave., Burlington, the pastoral team continues to inform members through its church website, jrnychurch.com, and through Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, explained Pastor Kevin Taylor.

    “I think there is generally a positive sense among our regular attenders,” Taylor said. “More people are watching than ever before online, including when we were meeting in person weekly. I think a majority of our Journey folks are ready to re-gather, but there are still another number of folks who are more cautious still.

    Taylor hopes to resume services soon but is following guidance from officials from the cities in which Journey has campuses: Kenosha, Burlington and Beach Park, Ill.

    “From everything I have heard from members and adherents, their faith is not shaken; if anything, it has been strengthened during this season,” he said. “What we’ve found is that God is still in charge, he still loves us, he’s working in our cities, more people are being drawn to him than ever before, and we still see his strong hand. I have no doubt there are some who may be discouraged with the isolation it has brought, but overall the church is strong.”