Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, May 15, 2020

Leap of faith with focus on safety

Churches reopen with reservations, distancing plans

Richie Hughes is looking forward to the first reservation he makes as the City of Chattanooga eases the restrictions it implemented in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Hughes won’t be reserving a table at one of the many local restaurants that are reopening, though. Instead, he’ll be claiming four seats for a Sunday morning service at Redemption to the Nations Church downtown.

“We’re going to ask our folks who want to come to church to register online so we’ll know how many people are coming,” says Hughes, the executive pastor at Redemption. “Once they arrive, an usher will escort them from the parking lot to their seats.”

After the service ends, the church will dismiss the congregation by sections and rows to keep people from packing the aisles as they shuffle out en masse. “We’re going to be cautious,” Hughes adds.

A similar scenario will be playing out at Abba’s House in Hixson. There, gloved greeters will be keeping their distance as they open doors for congregants who are returning to the church after a two-month shutdown.

Inside, families will be seated in every other row of the large sanctuary, which can hold around 3,000 people, and asked to leave at least four seats between them and their fellow congregants.

“We’ll be taking a lot of safety precautions,” says Denise Craig, executive pastor of operations at Abba’s House. “We’ll be waving at each other instead of hugging and shaking hands. And we’ll be encouraging people to wear masks.”

The image of worshippers being escorted into a sanctuary and singing through medical masks might sound like a scene in a Hollywood virus flick, but it’s one of the many choices churches are facing as they make plans to reopen their doors to members while in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s also one step closer to normal eight weeks after local churches reconfigured their worship experience in response to the outbreak.

Staying connected

Redemption closed its doors and canceled in-person services beginning March 16 – three days after Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke declared a state of emergency for the city.

“We decided that while it was unfortunate to have to close our doors, we were going to abide by our government’s guidelines,” Hughes explains.

By that time, COVID-19 had infected over 1,600 people in 47 states, according to a March 13 White House proclamation declaring a national state of emergency, and Hamilton County had confirmed its first case.

When Abba’s House held its last in-person service March 16, its average Sunday morning attendance of around 1,000 had dwindled to about 330, Craig acknowledges.

“People were starting to become nervous about crowds,” she recalls.

By the time Gov. Bill Lee issued his stay-at-home mandate April 2, many of the seats in sanctuaries across Chattanooga were already empty Sunday mornings.

However, worship continued throughout the city. Instead of staying home, pastors and music leaders at Redemption, Abba’s House and other local churches showed up Sunday morning, stepped onstage and conducted a service.

Although they sang and preached to a camera instead of a congregation, their words and music still reached their members through their televisions, tablets and smartphones.

This was possible because these churches already had the necessary technology in place. Leaving no digital stone unturned seems to be a matter of policy at Abba’s House, which broadcast its services through its website, YouTube channel and Facebook page, as well as its smartphone, tablet, Roku TV and Apple TV apps.

However, the leadership at the church did make a few alternations to its services. “We limited the number of people on the stage to 10 so we could maintain social distancing,” Craig says. “And our giving was done digitally, or people mailed in their offerings. But many of the other elements of the service were the same.”

Smaller congregations with less resources also joined the broadband parade. Freedom Church Chattanooga, an East Ridge church with an average Sunday morning attendance of about 300, has been streaming its services via Facebook and YouTube for two years, and continued its online services after closing in mid-March.

The church’s lead pastor, Nathan Garmany, says preaching to a camera instead of a full sanctuary felt strange at first, but he found a way to adjust.

“You don’t have the interaction with the lens that you have with people. That’s hard if you’re a better speaker when you have people there, reacting to what you’re saying,” he says. “It was working OK for me with just the media team there, but then I asked our staff to come in and sit while I preach, which helped.”

Tech savvy users like Robin Smith, a 57-year-old nurse who’s attended Abba’s House since she was in seventh grade, took to streaming the church’s services like a fish takes to water. But she still missed the warmth of her fellow congregants.

“I have friendships that have lasted since we were in youth group together, and people who taught Sunday School when I was young are still there,” she adds. “Those friendships are dear to me, and I’ve missed seeing everyone.”

Mitchell Meeks, a member and trustee at Abba’s House, has had a similar experience. “My wife and I have enjoyed watching the services on the large computer screen I have in my study, but we’ve missed the in-person contact with people we’ve come to know and love,” he says.

To continue to provide emotional and spiritual support during the pandemic, some churches utilized online tools that allow people to gather virtually. Abba’s House conducted its LifeGroups, which are analogous to Sunday School, via Zoom.

“That allowed us to spend time together and laugh together,” says Smith, who leads one of the LifeGroups. “So, while we haven’t been able to congregate under the same roof, we have been able to fellowship.”

Meanwhile, the members of the ministry team at Redemption rolled up their sleeves and picked up their phones. Since mid-March, the church’s staff has made about 1,000 calls a week to its members, Hughes says. “We pray for them, make sure they know we care, and talk with them about whatever they’re going through.”

Many churchgoers were able reconnect from a short distance when the Easter Sunday tornado that ravaged parts of Chattanooga drew them out of their homes to help with cleanup and disaster relief efforts.

As members of Abba’s House grabbed their chain saws and joined the Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief Team in clearing debris, Redemption doubled down on its Share ministry, which feeds about 200 people a day in its community, and Freedom Church called in a tractor trailer jam-packed with food and supplies from Convoy of Hope for the community.

“People often say, ‘We’re going back to church,’ but we are the church – all the time, wherever we go,” Craig points out. “The campus is a place, and we’re grateful for ours, where we have plenty of space to gather while also maintaining social distancing. But we can also worship online, in a building, in our cars, doing disaster relief, contributing to a food drive for school kids, or helping an elderly neighbor.”

Going back to church

Churches in Chattanooga had a slew of new decisions to make after May 1, when Gov. Lee released guidance for faith communities to begin gathering together in houses of worship.

From deciding when they would reopen to defining their safety protocols, religious leaders who normally shepherd the spiritual well-being of their congregants were being asked to protect their physical health as well.

Lee’s instructions provided a starting point for their discussions. Among other stipulations, the plan recommended churches gradually allow people to return, with their leadership asking vulnerable populations such as the elderly, the disabled, people with serious health issues and children to not attend until a later date.

Lee also suggested churches limit attendance to 50% of their maximum capacity, ask people to wear face coverings and encourage members to stay home if they’re symptomatic.

Instead of requiring pastors to adhere to these guidelines, Lee left the decisions regarding which directives to follow and how to each individual church. “We’re confident in their ability to determine the proper time and how to incorporate these guidelines to worship in a way that protects the health of their congregation,” he said.

This flexibility has resulted in a diverse set of blueprints for reopening.

Abba’s House, which will open May 17, plans to proceed cautiously. While the church’s nursery won’t be available and the leadership is encouraging vulnerable populations to “feel free to stay home,” it won’t be turning away anyone who’s healthy and wants to attend a service.

“Some of our older members have asked if they can come. They can if they want to but we don’t want anyone to feel bad about staying home if they feel like that’s what’s best for them right now,” Craig says. “We’ll be happy to see our people whenever they’re ready.”

Abba’s House will be requiring people who are symptomatic to stay home, however, and will have thermometers on hand in case anyone is concerned about how they or someone else is feeling.

The church has also come up with a unique plan for taking communion, which at some houses of worship can involve congregants drinking wine or juice from the same cup, or at least volunteers filling and serving cups of juice and distributing bread or crackers.

Lee’s guidelines, which recommend minimizing sharing food and drink, come into play here. While Abba’s House will not be serving communion on the May 17, when that time comes, it will be distributing individually packaged bread and juice.

“That will be more expensive, but these days, that’s the safest way to do it,” Craig says.

Abba’s House also has a plan for how to respond if someone who’s attended one of its services is diagnosed with COVID-19. Craig notes the staff will assist with contact tracing and thoroughly clean the facility. “We’ve already done a ton of cleaning overall and will be cleaning surfaces that are frequently touched between services, but we also want to be ready for that possibility.”

Redemption is being even more cautious. After doing an exhaustive survey of not only how Chattanooga-area churches but Christian congregations across the Southeast are reopening, the church’s leadership has tentatively decided to resume services May 31. However, that date is not set in stone, Hughes says.

“That’s our plan, but the news changes every day. If we feel like it’s safe for people to come back, then that’s when we’ll reopen, and if not, then we have the option of delaying that even further.”

As such, Redemption will be making decisions about how to implement Lee’s guidance in the coming weeks.

“Has there been a spike in cases? Have there been fewer cases? We’re prepared to take every precaution, but we’re waiting to see what happens between now and then,” he adds.

Smith says she feels comfortable returning to Abba’s House, as she feels confident that society has learned how to better take care of itself during the pandemic.

“This time of separation was necessary. It was smart to take this approach early on since we didn’t know how the contagion was going to affect us,” she says. “We now know the elderly are the most vulnerable, and you don’t have to have symptoms to be positive, so we’ve learned a lot while we’ve been separated – including the value of taking special care as we come back together.”

Smith will have a face mask with her, but only in case someone asks her to put it on. “I’ll wear it if I’m instructed to because I want to be respectful and remain under the authority of our pastor,” she explains. “But if we can stay more than 6 feet apart, maybe I’ll leave it off.”

Meeks says he’ll honor any restrictions Abba’s House places on congregants as well, although he adds he’s not convinced they’re necessary.

“I haven’t been as nervous or concerned about the virus. Maybe if I’d had someone close to me who had suffered from COVID-19, I’d feel differently about it,” he says. “But we’re excited about resuming church in person after such a long absence, even with the precautions.”

Meeks says he’ll honor the restrictions, even though he’s going to “have a bit of a hard time with them.” That said, he says some worshippers might be tempted to push the boundaries.

“I bet there are going to be some people who don’t just fist bump or wave at each other but hug anyway, and while I will be very sensitive to not hug anyone who doesn’t want me to, if someone wants a hug from me, I’m not going to turn them down.”

Smith likely won’t be seeking a hug from Meeks, but she is looking forward to seeing her church family again. “There’s going to be a lot of excitement because we’ve missed each other,” she says. “It will be healing for us to get back together.”

Garmany says he and the rest of the leadership at Freedom Church are looking forward to resuming in-person services May 24. “I’m glad we’ve been able to have the online experience, but there’s nothing like people gathering together to worship,” he enthuses. “Some of my greatest moments with God have taken place in those corporate environments, whether it was a conference or a church service, and I’m excited about getting everyone back together.”

Among the questions that remain in the midst of the pandemic is how the coronavirus will affect church culture moving forward. Garmany doesn’t think it will have a lasting impact on how people will interact with each other, especially after scientists develop a cure – which he says he believes will happen.

“We went from handshakes to fist bumps because the medical community said it would be safer,” he says. “But I don’t think elbow bumps will become the new culture because first bumps are still too cool.”

Hughes, however, thinks social distancing could become “the new norm.” To drive home this point, he and the rest of the staff at Redemption will be wearing bright yellow t-shirts with the phrase “Air hugs!” sandwiched between two outstretched arms when the church reopens.

“We like to shake hands, high-five, fist bump and hug,” he adds. “But we’re making every effort to let people know we don’t do that anymore.”

At least he knows he won’t be asked to wear a suit and tie when he arrives to claim his reservation.