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Churches navigate altered services to keep congregants safe

  • Bob Emberly, pastor of the Community Bible Church in Northfield, passes out programs at a drive-in service on Sunday. STAFF PHOTO/MAX MARCUS

  • Bob Emberly, pastor of the Community Bible Church in Northfield, speaks at a drive-in service on Sunday. STAFF PHOTO/MAX MARCUS

  • Bob Emberly, pastor of the Community Bible Church in Northfield, speaks at a drive-in service on Sunday. STAFF PHOTO/MAX MARCUS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/1/2020 6:16:18 PM

Though places of worship have been allowed to reopen in Massachusetts, it’s not exactly business as usual at local churches, which have adapted their services in hopes of keeping their congregants safe from COVID-19.

Pastors say church attendance is lower than usual, but that their congregants are glad to be back, even if the services aren’t traditional.

Some services have been drastically re-envisioned. For example, Bob Emberly, pastor of the Community Bible Church in Northfield, now has his pulpit in the middle of a grassy field at 24 Main St. His congregants line up at the far end of the field, in their vehicles, and tune in to a low-power AM frequency to hear him, like at a drive-in theater.

As vehicles pull in, Emberly, wearing a mask and gloves, greets everyone and passes out programs. Services are kept to half an hour, and attendance has been about 25 people — about half his normal numbers, he said.

“I think, whether it’s church or businesses, everybody is comfortable on different levels,” he said. “We want to honor that.”

Other churches have not restructured themselves so drastically, but are still noticeably different.

Blessed Sacrament Church in Greenfield restarted its daily services on May 24, said Deacon Bob O’Connor. Its sister church, Holy Trinity, started on Sunday.

Like other churches, Blessed Sacrament’s services now look different than usual, O’Connor said. Congregants wear masks, every other pew is taped off, there are more ushers than usual, books have been removed from the pews and communion is only given by hand.

Attendance has averaged about 80 people, O’Connor said — about half the normal numbers — but people have been attentive to the new rules.

“As much as everyone wants to give everyone else a hug and a kiss, everyone is very understanding,” O’Connor said.

Likewise, Our Lady Immaculate Church in Athol restarted its services on Sunday, with similar new rules.

The Rev. Edwin Montaña, pastor of Our Lady Immaculate, said attendance is also about half the normal numbers — about 50, compared to roughly 100 or 120 in a typical service.

Our Lady Immaculate’s temporary closure has in fact been longer than most. Sunday marked the first service at Our Lady Immaculate since October, when the church was damaged in a fire, Montaña said. Though church members are glad to be back, he said, his focus for now is the new safety guidelines.

“That was basically my sermon this week,” he said. ‘“Welcome back, we’re happy to be celebrating, but here is what we’re going to do.’ People need to be reminded.”

Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-930-4231.


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