On church reopening, a muted ‘amen’

Congregations can hold services, but many to proceed slowly

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER on Monday gave houses of worship permission to open immediately, with precautions. But worshippers seeking an in-person service this weekend may have limited options.

Many congregational leaders say they plan to wait to resume in-person worship – some for a couple of weeks, others for longer. They are figuring out the mechanics of reopening and waiting to see what happens as others go first.

“We’re going to move pretty slowly because we want to move very safely,” said the Rev. Ray Hammond, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Boston.

Hammond’s African Methodist Episcopal church typically attracts 325 worshippers between two services on Sundays. Church officials are figuring out how to implement safety policies – from determining bathroom etiquette to avoiding bottlenecks at entrances – while watching states that allowed in-person worship earlier, like Georgia, Texas, and Florida. “We have not set a definite date until we look at all those factors,” Hammond said, who is also a Harvard Medical School-trained physician.

The first stage of Baker’s phased reopening plan for the Massachusetts economy allows three industries to restart immediately, with conditions: construction, manufacturing and worship. The first two, Baker noted, include limited face-to-face and customer interactions. Houses of worship, by their nature, involve large gatherings with social interaction.

Baker said his administration published clear guidelines, and he hopes religious leaders will take seriously the risks of COVID-19 when considering how to reopen. “Taking away the opportunity for people to worship together was one of the worst of all of the decisions that we had to make in all of this,” Baker said. “And I am expecting and anticipating based on conversations we had with communities of faith that people will be diligent and serious about making sure that what they do with regard to reopening will work for them and for their congregation.”

Left unsaid were the potential legal ramifications if Baker delayed reopening churches. Pastor Kristopher Casey of Adams Square Baptist Church in Worcester already sued Baker and Worcester officials in US District Court for fining Casey after he led in-person worship services in violation of Baker’s order. Casey argued that the order unconstitutionally infringed on his First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and assembly.

Over 400 pastors wrote to Baker asking permission to reopen churches in the first phase. The pastors challenged Baker’s classification of churches as non-essential and wrote, “It is also clear that church is essential under both our state and federal Constitutions.”

A group of pastors was considering filing a class action lawsuit.

Conservative Christian groups have filed lawsuits challenging church closures in at least eight states.

The Baker administration’s guidance lets houses of worship reopen at 40 percent of building capacity. Attendees not in the same household must sit at least six feet apart and all worshippers will have to wear face coverings. Organizations cannot hold children’s programs or provide food.

The administration is encouraging churches to hold outdoor services. It is suggesting best practices like having congregants sign up for services online to limit attendance, eliminating shared collection plates, and modifying communal rituals that involve personal contact, like taking communion.

Some municipalities may have additional restrictions in place. The city of Boston, for example, has not yet said when it will allow churches to reopen. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh is planning a briefing on Boston’s reopening Tuesday.

Some churches plan to reopen immediately. Pastor James Montoro of Pioneer Valley Baptist Church in Westfield said he planned to open with or without permission May 31. “I felt like my civil rights had been violated,” Montoro said. Now, he will open for a Bible study and prayer meeting Wednesday night, and for multiple services this Sunday.

The church auditorium sits 180, so only 72 people will be allowed in, in accordance with Baker’s order. Church officials will take temperatures and hand out masks. There will be no hymn books, and bathrooms will be for emergencies only. In case people do not feel comfortable attending, the church will continue to post recordings of services online and use a radio transmitter to transmit the service to the parking lot, so people can listen from their cars.

“We’re going over and above [the guidelines], trying to be as safe as we can for our people,” Montoro said.

But other pastors are not immediately opening their doors, as they figure out how to implement the new requirements.

Pastor Roberto Miranda of Congregation Lion of Judah in Boston, a Baptist church serving mainly Hispanic congregants, was among those who organized the letter asking Baker to let churches reopen. Miranda said he is “anxious to open,” but not this Sunday.

Pastor Roberto Miranda of Congregation Lion of Judah in Boston. “We want to do this in a measured, responsible way.”

The church is considering holding a small service with church leaders and ushers in two weeks, followed by a public service the following Sunday. Miranda said he hopes to start with 100 or 125 worshippers in a sanctuary that holds 900. Ushers will take the temperatures of parishioners and will make sure people are not touching, are keeping chairs six feet apart, and are following instructions regarding the flow of people through the building.

“We want to be careful to do this in a measured, responsible way,” Miranda said.

But, Miranda added, people need their churches. “Our parishioners need to meet physically in their sanctuaries, their sacred places. It’s not enough to do things through Zoom,” he said. “The church has an impact on people’s lives that’s absolutely essential. We provide counsel, spiritual comfort, interpretations of the things people are living especially at a time of crisis.”

In the Catholic Church, the Archdiocese of Boston gave permission for churches to resume in-person Mass beginning Saturday evening, May 23, with strict guidelines governing capacity and social distancing. Daily Masses and funerals can resume May 25.

A statement from the Archdiocese said many churches may need until Sunday, May 31 – the Feast of the Pentecost – to prepare. The statement said a dispensation releasing Catholics from their obligation to attend Sunday Mass “will continue for the foreseeable future,” and no parish should open until they can do it safely.

There will be no congregational singing in Catholic churches, hymnals will be removed from the churches, holy water fonts will be emptied, there will be no holding hands, and wine will not be distributed as part of communion.

Other religious communities are also taking time to prepare. Rabbi Yaakov Jaffe of Maimonides Minyan, a Jewish congregation in Brookline, said 10 Modern Orthodox synagogues in Greater Boston have agreed to wait at least two weeks to reopen.

Synagogues are looking into holding services outside and considering whether there should be an age limit to discourage older people from attending. Synagogues typically have social hours with food after Saturday morning services, which will not happen. They are making changes to the service to avoid having multiple people crowding together around a central table. “We’re trying to obviously keep all the guidelines but have many more guidelines beyond what is even required,” Jaffe said.

Jaffe said while Jews have a religious obligation to attend services, it is also a religious obligation to save lives. “We know the science, we’re communicating with doctors who are at the top of their fields, and we’re doing this not because we have an irrational obsession with our God…we’re doing this because there is a vital emotional and social role congregations play,” Jaffe said.

Jaffe said congregants need a way to grieve their loved one or celebrate a child’s birth, and the congregation will reopen in a safe way. “The decision to come back is to provide a necessary, emotional, social human need that we need for people to be strong and not go crazy,” Jaffe said.

Muslims this Sunday will celebrate Eid al-Fitr, a holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Faisel Khan, director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland and a cardiologist, said 800 people typically crowd into his mosque for the celebration – a possibility Khan called “disastrous” right now. Khan said the mosque will definitely not open Sunday. The bigger question is when to reopen for obligatory Friday prayers.

Mosques generally do not have pews. Rather, worshippers stand in lines and bow to the floor on prayer mats. Khan said separating everyone by six feet means their prayer space could only accommodate a small number of worshippers. “If 400 people want to come, how are you going to accommodate them if you can only take 40?” Khan said.

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

The mosque is considering moving prayers into a social hall, which has a floor that can be mopped rather than a carpet that needs thorough cleaning, or outside. They will ask everyone to bring their own prayer mat. Khan said leaders are thinking of opening in early June, after seeing how others have handled services. “The manner of our worship makes it much more complicated to accommodate what the governor is saying. Consequently, I think waiting makes sense for us,” he said.

Imam Asif Hirani, of the Worcester Islamic Center, said his board is meeting Monday night to decide on reopening. He anticipates asking older members, those with health conditions, and children to stay home. The mosque will continue live streaming services so people can watch remotely. Worshippers will be asked to bring their own prayer mats, stand six feet apart, and leave immediately after the service without socializing or handshaking. “We’ll just do the bare minimum to perform the service and ritual,” Hirani said.