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Churches ponder reopening moves

  • Pastor Bob Emberley of the Community Bible Church hopes to build a new church at this lot at 24 Main St. in Northfield. The congregation plans to conduct drive-in services and, beginning in June, will set up a tent for outdoor services. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The Rev. Jim Ewen said his Central Congregational Church of New Salem “will continue our Zoom worship services, Bible study and coffee hours for at least another week or two.” STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Pastor Michael Grant delivers a sermon from the front porch of Moores Corner Church in Leverett, where the congregation meets outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic. SCREENSHOT/CONTRIBUTED VIDEO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/21/2020 4:21:04 PM
Modified: 5/21/2020 4:20:52 PM

Local faith leaders are studying the mandatory safety standards for reopening places of worship, issued Monday by Gov. Charlie Baker, to see how they may comply. The guidelines include a 21-point COVID-19 checklist covering social distancing, staffing and operations, “robust” hygiene protocols, and “robust” cleaning and disinfecting procedures.

Most church leaders report it is too early to commit to a reopening date, and churches that are part of larger denominations are awaiting advice from their leadership and/or permission to resume services.

Some churches, however, are already holding or planning outdoor services that comply with state guidelines. For example, Pastor Michael Grant of Moores Corner Church in Leverett said, “Moores Corner Church has never canceled a service; we have met outdoors, which was acceptable as long as we took precautions according to the website. The most difficult part of all of this was navigating people’s emotions of fear and loyalty to God vs. obedience to government. The one major change is how this led us to buy video equipment to where we now record and post our messages/services online.”

In Northfield, Pastor Bob Emberley said the Community Bible Church “plans to do a drive-in service this week and next, using an AM radio transmitter so people stay in cars and listen.” The church owns property at 24 Main St. with a parking lot and greenscape.

“Then, beginning in June, we will set up a tent and have outdoor services following the protocols put in place by the commonwealth for outside gatherings of our size (under 50 people),” he said.

In Colrain, Pastor Jim Rennie reports the First Baptist Church will reopen Sunday. All members will be required to wear a mask and follow social distancing guidelines.

“Those not comfortable instead can stay in their cars and hear the service through the PA system in the parking lot,” Rennie said.

Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of the Diocese of Springfield said in a letter to parishes Monday, “Parishes will be allowed to resume public Masses this Saturday, May 23, only if they have provided the Office of the Bishop written assurance that they have met all the state, municipal and diocesan guidelines, and received a response giving permission to resume. It is not unreasonable that some parishes may require additional time and therefore not open until the following weekend.”

Our Lady of Peace Church in Turners Falls is aiming to resume weekend Masses on June 6 and 7, saying, “We are excited that we will soon be worshipping together again as a community.”

In Greenfield, the Rev. Heather Blais, rector of the Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew, expressed the thoughts of many faith leaders. “Per our bishop, our buildings are closed until at least July 1,” she said. “Our vestry is voting on a process for moving forward, which will rely on diocesan guidelines, some of which are out already and some of which are forthcoming. Our plan is to take it slow, cautiously and prayerfully. We will keep being the church in both virtual and traditional ways for as long as necessary.”

Kirsten Levitt, lay leader at All Souls Church of Greenfield, said, “We will not be reopening anytime soon. We will need time to make decisions and get guidance from the UUS (Unitarian Universalist Association).”

Likewise, according to Annette Mackin at Bernardston Unitarian Church, “We have not yet decided when we will return to our meetinghouse for regular Sunday services, but hope to meet socially distanced in June for projected sessions of the online UUA General Assembly. We also plan to have some summer services. ... Our major challenge in meeting at the church will be cleaning and disinfecting.”

In Northfield, the Executive Committee of the Trinitarian Congregational Church consulted with the Rev. Kelly Gallagher, associate conference minister of the UCC Franklin Association, on Tuesday. Executive Committee Chair Martha Morse reports, “It is a complicated issue. Basically, they are recommending that in-person worship in buildings be suspended through at least the end of the summer.” Morse said the church will reconsider its position in July.

In Shelburne Falls, Trinity Church has made the decision to keep the church building closed during the spring and summer months. The Rev. Marguerite Sheehan said, “We will continue with broadcasting a Sunday YouTube worship service and holding smaller group meetings via Zoom until it is clear that gathering inside is safe for all using whatever precautions are advised at that time. At this time, we are also considering ways to meet safely outdoors for some activities while keeping physical (but not spiritual) distance.”

Other church leaders who are holding off on committing to an opening date, pending discussions with their leadership team, include the Rev. Jason Beamon, lead pastor of Greenfield Alliance Church; Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener of Temple Israel Greenfield; the Rev. Lawrence Lake of Leyden United Methodist Church; the Rev. Jeff Galbraith of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Greenfield; the Rev. Liza B. Knapp of The First Church of Deerfield; and Pastor Rob Gormbley at First Congregational Church in Shelburne.

The Rev. Jon Reardon, pastor of Holy Family Parish in South Deerfield, wrote in a letter to his congregation that Mass will resume Saturday at 4 p.m. Reardon will be adding two extra Masses to accommodate as many people as possible.

Definitely opening on May 31, with full services at 10 and 11:30 a.m., is Living Waters Assembly of God in Greenfield, according to the Rev. David Levandusky.

Still in the “closed” category is the Vernon (Vt.) Advent Christian Church. The Rev. Bruce Burks reports, “Unfortunately, Vermont’s governor has not reopened Vermont to the point where churches can gather.”

In Halifax, Vt., the Rev. Marcia Dorey reports “Halifax Union Society has decided not to reopen until the first Sunday in July.”

North Quabbin area churches

The Rev. Jim Ewen said Central Congregational Church of New Salem “will continue our Zoom worship services, Bible study and coffee hours for at least another week or two and, like some others, will wait to hear from our denomination and consider carefully how best and when to reopen with in-person worship.”

Pastor Judy Jones of the Orange and South Athol United Methodist churches said, “Our United Methodist Bishop has guided us not to resume physical gatherings before June 1. Progress back will be very slow, taking all precautions to not put any of our brothers and sisters in harm’s way as we regain physical gatherings. We are expecting guidelines from our New England Annual Conference this week. My congregations are just beginning to vision how we will move forward.”

Sally Wheeler of Athol Orange Baptist Church reports, “Our Reopening Committee is still working on details.”

The Rev. Candi Ashenden of the Athol Congregational Church and committees are working on the plan to reopen, “for sure not until June,” according to Bonnie Benjamin.

The Rev. Edwin Montana reports that “Masses at Our Lady Immaculate and St. Francis in Athol and St. Peter’s in Petersham will resume the weekend of May 30 at all three locations following the normal Mass schedule: Saturday, 4 p.m. at Our Lady; Sunday, 8 a.m. at St. Francis, 9:30 a.m. at St. Peter’s and 11 a.m. at Our Lady. Weekday Masses (Monday through Wednesday at 8 a.m.) will start on Monday, June 1, at Our Lady Immaculate in the main church.”

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