NEW YORK – ON THE SCENE: Opening our churches in a perilous moment

NEW YORK – ON THE SCENE: Opening our churches in a perilous moment

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Lake Placid News | July 2, 2020

Now in COVID-19 reopening Phase 3, churches in the region are opening or finalizing their plans to open. A challenge for some, like St. Brendan’s and the Keene Valley Congregational Church, is that their spaces are relatively small and in the summer they typically are packed with a mix of year-round and seasonal residents. Thus, limiting their attendance to 25 people, or a quarter of their congregation as a means of maintaining social-distancing protocols, could result in a need for multiple services or people being turned away.

Pastors are also grappling with addressing from a spiritual perspective the impact of two global pandemics, COVID-19 and racism, while climate change is hurtling down like freight train racing toward a crowd of people caught in a tunnel. Thus, on the one hand, there is an excellent reason for a joyful celebration. People of faith can reconnect, yet from the pulpit come words that are by no means laudatory. Instead, they call for us to open our hearts and minds to the most vulnerable amongst us.

Two weeks ago, Father John Yonkovig, pastor of St. Agnes in Lake Placid and St. Brendan’s in Keene, and the Rev. John Sampson, pastor of the Keene Valley Congregational Church, were wrestling with the logistics of keeping people separated and safe while making sure the services were accessible as many more people have been able to attend online as in person. Both knew that for many, there was an eagerness to come together for worship. At the same time, they understood that people were anxious as a high percentage of congregants are older, in one of the most at-risk categories.

“There is certainly an eagerness on the part of many parishioners to gather again for Eucharist and public worship,” said Father Yonkovig. “They’ve missed that, despite the fact they can watch it on TV or online. There is something about a communal gathering with fellow believers that makes all the difference. So we want people to feel very safe returning to church. That’s our priority. The challenges are significant.”

Both churches established committees to develop recommendations that will consider the most recent state and health guidelines, recommendations from their respective council of churches/diocese, and thoughts expressed by the congregations. Initially for St. Agnes, the plan was to alternate pews: one for the Saturday evening service, one for the Sunday 8 a.m. service, a third for the 10 a.m. Sunday service and limiting the number of attendees. Now volunteer ushers clean the pews between services, allowing for the use of alternating rows at St. Agnes and St. Brendan’s.

A lot of the questions we have to answer are not black and white; they are very gray,” said the Rev. John Sampson, pastor of Keene Valley Congregational Church. “Or they have to take in competing desires — for instance, singing. From a health perspective, singing is one of the practices that is the riskiest in terms of spreading the virus. On the other hand, singing is core to our experience of worship when we come together. Our task force will take these competing values and come up with a plan that balances them out somehow.”