Churches in West Virginia have been given the green light to resume in-person services, but not everyone is rushing back to fill the pews.
COVID-19 has done more than halt Sunday sermons, disrupt choir practice and block communion. It has disrupted major religious observances — including Easter, Passover and Ramadan — and strained the day-to-day duties of pastors and worship leaders.
Methodist Pastor Derick Biondi’s average workweek before the coronavirus pandemic was almost mind-bogglingly busy.
He oversees three separate churches — Chesapeake United Methodist in Chesapeake, Reynolds Memorial United Methodist Church in Marmet and Mount Juliet United Methodist Church in Belle.
“Three churches is pretty common practice in the state of West Virginia, across the country and around the world,” Biondi said, adding that his wife, Cindy Briggs-Biondi, also a Methodist minister, had two churches.
Along with prepping for sermons and then delivering them on Sunday, his average week included hospital visits with congregants, meetings with different boards, choir practice and Bible study at the Hardee’s in Marmet.
“The Marmet and the Chesapeake churches join together for that,” he said. “They have a little room we use, which has been great. The staff is amazing, and we’ve seen larger numbers of people coming out to the Bible study than we would if we just had the Bible studies separately.”
People brought friends. Discussions could be lively.
The church also did a homecooked meal for families every other week and fed children who were hungry.
“Wednesdays are really the hub for everything,” Biondi said.
Rabbi Victor Urecki also maintains a brisk schedule at B’nai Jacob Synagogue in Charleston. There were daily services, plus Shabbat services Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, and Torah classes. The rabbi also worked with children approaching their bar mitzvahs, among other things.
Much of that stopped abruptly in mid-March, as concerns about the impact of the pandemic grew.
“We began shutting down March 15,” the rabbi said. “I remember we had services that night and I was reluctant because as most churches, synagogues, temples and mosques, we have a pretty vulnerable population, an elderly population.”
Elderly congregants are funny, he said. They’re the first ones to come to service, no matter what.
Urecki joked, “If it’s snowing, they’ll say don’t worry. We’ll drive slow and if it’s a pandemic, they’ll say, don’t worry. We won’t breathe.”
The rabbi said he had an obligation and responsibility to act.
“We’d figure it out later,” he said.
And they did.
A lot of congregations figured out how to maintain their faith communities and worship online, hosted Bible studies and children’s ministries through Zoom meetings, Facebook Live and YouTube videos.
A few congregations have held church services in parking lots. Congregants listened to sermons while cocooned in the steel and glass of their vehicles.
Rev. James Jackson, pastor of Levi First Missionary Baptist Church in Rand, said his church began doing parking lot Sunday services last month.
“I kind of heard of some churches down south doing that,” he said. “I just woke up on a Saturday and the Lord had laid it on my heart to do the same.”
They marked off the lot and people came. If they couldn’t get on the lot, they parked across the street or sat in lawn chairs.
Reverend Jackson said they had 62 people come to services last Sunday, plus there’d been a few others who’d slowed down or stopped to listen as they drove past the red brick building on Church Drive.
“It seemed to be a good service for the community,” he said.
According the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, Catholic confession is still being made available in West Virginia.
Catholics can call their local priest and schedule an in-person meeting that maintains social distancing and follows other safety protocols.
Priests are also still anointing the sick who may be in danger of nearing the end of their lives.
Other churches, like Abundant Life Ministries in Charleston’s East End and Bible Center Church near Southridge, have continued outreach missions. Bible Center has made and sent care packages for health care workers. Abundant Life has provided to-go meals for the hungry.
But some religious rites have been put on hold. Baptism and communion are virtually impossible to perform from a distance, and weddings are risky.
Biondi said he had one scheduled in mid-April.
“I was afraid I was going to have to tell the couple that we couldn’t have it,” he said. “Luckily, they had this realization on their own. Right now, everything like that is on pause.”
Urecki had to officiate a funeral.
“That was probably the most difficult moment during the past six or seven weeks,” he said.
The rabbi explained that the deceased, a retired nurse, had been a member of the congregation for many years but moved away 15 years ago. Her family had brought the deceased back for burial.
When she’d lived in Charleston, she’d served as a member of the Chevra Kadisha (Holy Society). In Jewish tradition, the bodies of the dead are prepared with ancient rituals. It’s carefully washed, and then shrouded in traditional garments. Members of Chevra Kadisha keep watch over the body until the burial a short time later.
“It’s a very special volunteer society,” Urecki said. “And she was kind of our anchor, maybe because she was a nurse.”
The service is important, but finding people willing to be part of the society is sometimes difficult.
“It’s tough,” he said. “A lot of people have never really looked at a corpse.”
Let alone the corpse of someone you may have known your entire life. But Urecki said the deceased had served with Chevra Kadisha for 30 years.
No one in the congregation could perform this service for her. Urecki said there were people willing, but it was too risky.
The family agreed. The traditional Jewish method of preparing the dead was taken on by the funeral home, which was licensed to do the job, but Urecki said the funeral was just very sad.
“Another time, there might have been a couple of hundred,” he said. “She’d helped to bury the loved ones of so many.”
Instead, there’d only been a handful of mourners.
Biondi said, “Thanks be to God, we haven’t had any deaths at this time.”
The minister explained that he didn’t mean to sound flippant, but in countries like Italy, funerals have been a problem.
“I know they were putting a hold on funerals,” he said. “Priests were doing services alone with the body and the family is left to mourn alone. You hear stories like that, and it’s just a punch to the gut.”
Biondi said that, from what he’s heard, local funerals have been small, intimate gatherings.
“Just simple gravesite services,” he said.
The Methodist pastor said he didn’t believe God was responsible for the pandemic.
“God doesn’t bring about brokenness, but God can turn the brokenness and turn it on its head and make it good,” he said.
Biondi said churches everywhere have been talking for years about online outreach and drawing people in, but they’ve dithered over how to do that.
The minister said churches have been forced to say, “Alright, how do we have an online presence? How do we upload videos? How do we do live worship on Facebook?”
What’s good about online services is that it provides a chance for people to peer through the doorway of the church without having to face judgment.
“Walking through the door of a church is one of the most daunting things ever,” Biondi said.
Strangers are sometimes judged by how they look and how they dress. They can be made to feel uncomfortable because they stumble through the procession of the service or because they don’t know all the words to the prayers being said.
“There’s none of that expectation online,” Biondi said. “It’s just, ‘Come join us.’”
Urecki said the pandemic has provided an unexpected silver lining for B’nai Jacob.
More people view the daily services than ever attended them in person. Online services have also helped the synagogue reconnect with former congregants, some of whom left the state decades ago.
The rabbi said the experience has been an opportunity to answer questions, like how do they serve Jews living in rural parts of the state, or how do they better serve the elderly who can’t come to services, but want to?
“Our challenge is how do we keep these things going?” Urecki said.
While churches can offer in-person services again (and rumors persist that some small, out of the way churches maybe never stopped), the rules and recommendations for having regular services again aren’t particularly encouraging.
According to state government’s directives, seating in houses of worship should be every other pew and social distancing is still recommended between congregants.
“If you have a household of three or four people who’ve been quarantining together, they could sit together,” Biondi said. “But other people would not be able to sit with them.”
Seating people 6 feet apart would tend to fill many churches to capacity quickly.
Choir singing or congregational singing is discouraged.
Biondi said singing has been described as about “three minutes of sustained coughing” because of the forced projection.
“If you did that, you’d need to be a lot farther away than 6 feet from anyone,” he said and that just seemed like adding more risk.
Rev. Jackson said he and his son, Jason, were performing some church music at their parking lot services. It was just the two of them performing with a keyboard.
“It’s mostly Jason, but I sing a little,” Jackson said.
The Reverend said the pair were separated some distance from the congregation, who were protected by their vehicles.
Wearing masks at services, like in other public spaces, is encouraged. Church staff must sanitize seats and frequently used spaces between services, and seniors or other vulnerable persons are asked to stay home, among other directives.
Biondi said his congregations weren’t in a hurry to begin meeting for Sunday services or anything else again for a while.
“In two of my churches, the average age is around 80,” he said. “The other is around 60 or 65.”
Biondi said he’d had one call about returning, but he was holding off — at least for a couple of weeks.
“I think we want to see what happens with restrictions being loosened up and that’s going to take a couple of weeks to see the results of that,” he said.
Ibtesam Barazi, speaking on behalf of the Islamic Association of West Virginia, said they would tend to follow the leads of the other houses of worship.
“We have to consider our elderly population,” she said.
Jackson said Levi First Missionary Baptist was moving toward having Sunday services inside the church sooner rather than later. His congregation is mostly made up of African Americans, who are seen as disproportionately affected by the virus.
Jackson said church members told him they missed having church.
The pastor said they were being cautious and would continue to observe proper distancing, and he’d ordered masks for anyone who came and didn’t have one. He was waiting on delivery Tuesday.
“If they were to come in by Friday, we would have church next Sunday,” he said.
Urecki said B’nai Jacob would likely open back up in stages and could back down, depending on what happened with the spread of the virus.
“We might start with opening up for daily services again, but we seldom see more than 10 people at those,” he said. “But we’d have to figure out proper health protocols, like how do you sanitize the room every day?”
Full services would probably take much longer to resume. Jewish tradition is law-based, he said.
“It’s always kind of been ‘listen to your doctor,’” he said.
And being careful for the sake of others, Urecki added, is a “mitzvah” — a good deed.
Biondi agreed, but he also believes a cautious congregation preserves its community.
“I don’t see how a church could weather the brokenness that could come from meeting again too soon,” he said. “Health issues or deaths would weigh on a congregation for as long as we live.”