Churches await full reopening

Lutheran Church Interim Pastor Gordon Simmons oversees communion at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Dover Friday morning. Church communicants come forward individually and take the wafer and pre-filled glass of wine from a table set up below the altar. Submitted photo/St. Andrew’s

DOVER — As church doors remained closed, virtual attendance zoomed upward, interim pastor Gordon Simmons said Friday.

Pre-coronavirus, more than 100 members typically gathered for Sunday services inside St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church.

Now, according to the pastor, an average of 300 to 400 viewers hear the sermon via YouTube and Facebook Live.

While eagerly anticipating the chance to personally greet parishioners, the pastor is encouraged that God’s word continues to be shared with many.

“I’m not sure exactly where they’re coming from (on social media),” he said. “We have some taking part from really faraway places.

“I’m guessing that some folks tell friends and relatives who might not be members, and some others just tend to surf online looking for something to watch.”

It’s uncertain, however, when St. Andrew’s and other churches will again meet inside as they grapple with state-ordered guidelines for health concerns.

“Some people have accused the Bible of being legalistic but that’s nothing compared to all the coronavirus regulations we’ve been getting,” according to Pastor Simmons.

“Until we can meet all the standards to the highest degree then we won’t be reopening.”

When sanctuary access returns, parishioners must then decide whether to leave home for church.

It’s a tough call and many religious leaders expect a slow return to the pews.

“In some ways we could be seen as a small business that’s been shut down or limited in many ways,” Pastor Simmons said. “This has been tough on churches.

“How many people will come back when we reopen is not clear.”

On Friday afternoon, Pastor Dave Souder and his wife Deb brought a kids-oriented tea party to the Camden home of church members Vinny and Marisa Stephano. Submitted photo/Smyrna Wesleyan Church

Under the current Phase 1 of Delaware’s reopening in effect since June 1, houses of worship can offer in-person services, those gathered inside not exceeding 30% of its state fire occupancy requirements.

The maximum capacity expands to 60% when Phase 2 arrives on June 15, but it’s uncertain how quickly the faith community returns.

At all times, social distancing, hygiene and face coverings are state mandated. Additional guidance and information is available online at de.gov/cwguidance.

There’s significant trepidation for some in the faith community even during the expanded worship opportunities, though.

“Our church and other churches have a lot of members over 65, including myself, and there will still be some fear about returning,” Pastor Simmons said.

Social media’s reach

With no start date for returned in-person worship, John Wesley A.M.E. Church in Dover has kept its community connected through Facebook Live, GoToMeeting and Zoom conferences.

The church has gained virtual participants from Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina and Massachusetts. Some are former AME members who left the area, others with no direct connection have joined in and now plan to visit Dover sometime.

“It’s been amazing, really, to add to our community and stay in touch with the members we already had,” Pastor Nakeeda Brooks said.

At Smyrna Wesleyan Church, a typical audience of 80 to 90 has increased to 150 to 200 thanks to Facebook Live. While the drive-through style has kept regular attendance up, the social media has had quite an impact too.

“We’re drawing people from all over the U.S.,” Pastor the Rev. Dave Souder said.

The church plans to open more fully on June 21, but it’s still in touch with many. Smyrna Wesleyan also offers weekly Bible study and kids programs via Facebook.

According to Rev. Souder, social media “has been a good investment. I never thought I would be a televangelist, but providing the ministry through whatever means possible.

“God has taken away one our biggest tools — a church building – and we’ve been challenged to think outside the box and figure out how to keep providing a source of faith in some especially uncertain times.

“Staying in touch gives our members a sense of hope. A lot of people are lonely and church gives them a chance to be a part of something. An opportunity to do so should always be available so we’ve worked to ensure that it’s there.”

Via Facebook Live, the Rev. Eunice Dunlap provides a nightly prayer room for All Saints’ Church and St. George’s chapel in Rehoboth Beach and Harbeson, respectively. Sunday services are also posted on YouTube and Rev. Dunlap described the viewership as “very successful. We’re still trying to figure out whey that is but we’re happy with the results.”

There’s still no substitute for physical contact, however.

“We’re a hugging church and we really miss each other terribly,” the Rev. Dunlap said. “We love hanging out to have lots of laughs and sharing a meal, but that’s just no possible right now and that’s too bad.”

With likely planning for a late summer reopening – the Rev. Dr. Erika Crawford described it as on “August-ish” — Mount Zion A.M.E. Church is taking a four-phased approach formed by a 14-member committee. Attendance limits will increase from 25, to 50 and then 100, with two services possible. Somewhere between 60% to 70% members are older than 65 and a cautious approach looms over every decision. Live streams will continue for now.

“We are eager to get back into the church but our parishioners are part of the most vulnerable population — African Americans over 65 years old,” the Rev. Dr. Crawford said. “So we’ll manage our eagerness with Godly wisdom. We understand that God is where we are and God is not in a building. God will be everywhere that is needed.”

Though First Presbyterian Church in Smyrna plans to return to public worship on Sunday, the Rev. Dr. John Riley thinks many members will continue to take part via live stream for now.

“I don’t think we’ll have an immediate surge,” the Rev. Dr. Riley said. “Some will want to come back and others will feel the need to shelter in place and we respect both decisions.”


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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