Faith communities approaching in-person services with caution

Jun 1, 2020

May 29, 2020 — Thursday’s local health order gave the go-ahead for in-person religious services, following the governor’s announcement that he was lifting some restrictions on worship, allowing counties to decide if they wanted to follow suit.

Some faith communities are sticking with remote programs, while others, like the Calvary Chapel in Willits and Saint Mary of the Angels Catholic Church in Ukiah, are gearing up for cautious, live services.

Carol Rosenberg is the secretary to the Kol HaEmek Schul in Redwood Valley, serving the inland Jewish community. With a small building and a congregation that skews toward the at-risk age group, “We have not used the building since the beginning of the covid problem,” she said; “and our plan is not to use the building until well after the fall holidays. We’re rather concerned about getting together and singing in an enclosed space, which seems to be one of the best ways to transmit the covid.”

Cherie Marckx is the pastor at the Church of the Open Door, First Christian Church of Ukiah. Her recorded services are available on YouTube and Facebook, but she found another way to bring a personal touch to her congregants. “The first few weeks, I did it purely old school. I went back to actually paper newsletters that I mailed out. That and a combination of phone calls,” she reported. She intends to go back to in-person services eventually; “But the cases stemming from the Redwood Valley church have me a little nervous,” she acknowledged. “That’s very close to home, and I’m just thinking, I’m not quite ready to open it up and bring them back in again yet.” 

Bishop Minerva Carcaño, of the United Methodist Church in California and Nevada, gave orders Thursday for churches to stay closed through the month of June. But Bishop Robert Vasa, of the Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa, which extends from Petaluma to the Oregon border, says the faithful can come back to church, carefully. 

Father Peter Reddy, the priest at Saint Mary of the Angels in Ukiah, was preparing to welcome 100 worshipers to each of the Pentecost Mass services in a church with a capacity of 526 people. The health order states that services can be held at 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever number is smaller. Ushers have been trained to make sure distancing and sanitation protocols are being followed, and the church has been sanitized. “There are people who are really strong in their faith,” he said. “For them, it is death without the Church. So they are losing so much spiritual strength and they feel that the Church is their second home, or their first home. God is primary for them. I think that they are losing so much without the Church.”

Saint Mary offers two sets of services: one English, and one Spanish. Father Peter wasn’t expecting a large crowd to the English-speaking service, since that demographic tends to be much older, and might be reluctant to attend an in-person service. Congregants who feel vulnerable continue to receive a dispensation allowing them to miss Mass. But often, 500 people would come to Church for the Spanish-speaking Mass; “So 100 people is nothing,” Father Peter said sadly. Emergency confession is available, as long as the priest and the congregant wear masks and maintain social distance.

On the other end of the county, Margaret Holub, who has been the rabbi of the Mendocino Coast Jewish Community for 31 years, is thinking about things that might be safe to do in person in a few months. “There is no vaccine, and there is really no change in the medical situation at all that would tell us that it’s time to open up,” she reflected. “So I think we’re probably going to go slow. We may try some distancey kinds of things, and I don’t know what they would be, exactly.” One possibility is the first day of September’s Rosh Hashanah celebration, where congregants go to the beach and throw some bread crumbs onto the water, to symbolize casting off the sins of the previous year. “And we kind of wondered if we might be able to do that, just that one particular thing, in a careful, distanced kind of way,” she said. “But we haven’t decided.” 

For the holiday of Shavuot, though, Rabbi Holub planned to drive around the community with the Torah scroll in her green Ford Fiesta, so people could view it safely through the windows of the car. “I’m calling it the Torah mobile,” she concluded.