Church leaders make changes to worship amid COVID peak

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RICHMOND, Virginia – Pastors, priests and other church leaders across central Virginia are scrambling to change COVID-19 protocols amid a record number of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations every day. While some have moved services online, others continue to rally in person with strict measures reminiscent of 2020: mandatory mask and social distancing.

“One thing about the faith community: we learn that we don’t need a building all the time,” said Ralph Hodge. “If your faith is anchored in a building, we have missed it.”

This Sunday, the pastor of Second Baptist Church South Richmond handed over his 95e consecutive sermon in a room with empty chairs and a camera that broadcast his message live on Facebook Live.

“We have been virtual since the third Sunday in March 2020,” he said.

Hodge and his team were in the midst of a plan to reopen which was due to begin on January 9. This included blocking some seats, limiting capacity and requiring masks. However, Hodge decided to put the plan on hiatus due to the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant.

“I would probably give a boost to get back to in-person services right now,” Hodge said. “The only reason we’re not coming back is simply because we don’t want to be responsible for anyone who gets sick.”

A few miles from the Southside, a similar scenario unfolds at The Life Church. Pastor Vernon Gordon has moved all weekend services exclusively online as he monitors coronavirus data.

“Our priority is the health and safety of everyone in our congregation,” said Gordon.

Before making the call, Gordon said he consulted his medical advisory committee which includes health professionals within the church as well as outside influences. As expected, he said not everyone supports his decision.

“A church is full of people who love each other, and we are a family,” said Gordon. “But nonetheless, even the family has different opinions.”

He said every decision he had made so far throughout the pandemic was made with wise advice and good intentions. Although some people disagree with his approach, he asks for thanks to his congregation as they sail together this season.

“For every opinion and the data that supports that opinion on one side, there is data and opinions on the other side that are aligned,” Gordan said.

Across the river, Pastor John Wagler of Hill City Church is also walking a tightrope of divergent opinions on how to move forward.

“It’s really tough,” Wagler said. “As a leader, you rebound their emotional health, their physical health, and their spiritual health. “

For now, Wagler has said Hill City will continue to serve in person, with a virtual option, while asking everyone to hide. He said the community and the human bond of being physically together have served as lifelines for some, especially after virtual work, school and gatherings take their toll on people’s mental health.

“I had three people come up to me absolutely in tears that they could be together and have God do something with them this morning,” Wagler said. “You just can’t get this online.”

Like Gordon, Wagler said not everyone fully agrees with his leadership. However, he stressed that each church congregation has different needs and that he does his best to support his community.

“Every leader has to consider the nuanced elements and the many different elements that go into it, and some of us come to different conclusions,” he said.

In Chesterfield, Elizabeth Felicetti, Rector of St. David’s Episcopal Church, also retains an in-person option.

“I have dedicated my life to this,” she said. “I think the church is essential.”

Part of her decision to continue in-person worship stems from a personal time in her life when she underwent cancer treatment and was unable to reunite with others on Sundays.

“I had to watch my congregation on a screen, and for me it wasn’t worship,” Felicetti said.

Recently, his diocese decided to suspend public worship, but Felicetti quickly requested an exemption.

“In order to qualify for the exemption, we had to demand masks, demand distancing and be able to contact the trace,” she said.

However, she said her decision drew criticism from the congregation.

“Some of the comments have been very harsh,” Felicetti said. “If I didn’t sincerely believe that God was calling me to this, I wouldn’t want to do it anymore.”

To those who may be feeling the consequences of COVID-19, these four religious leaders offer words of encouragement and advice.

“I think it’s important to name our fears and have really honest discussions about our fears and then move on,” Felicetti said.

“I would just encourage people to keep trying to find ways to stay connected,” Wagler said. “And because of that, you will be able to have people to go through all of this with and give you a sense of hope.”

“I will remind people of a short scripture in the New Testament that says, ‘For God hath not given us a spirit of fear, but of love, and of power, and of sane spirit,” said Gordon.

“We wait and trust God. He’s going to get us out of this.” Hodge said. “God has always done this for His people. He will take you through a crisis.”

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