Churchgoers reconnecting: In-person prayer rises for area worshippers amid virus

Congregants of the Avenue United Methodist Church sing worship songs during an outdoor service last Sunday evening. Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller

At 6 p.m. last Sunday, parishioners set up their folding chairs on the lawn of Milford’s Avenue United Methodist Church as Pastor Steve LaMotte plugged his guitar into a portable public-address system.

“We started meeting again as a church the first Sunday of July, and that was with in-person worship indoors at 9 and 10:30 (a.m.) and then our outdoor service” on Sunday evenings, he said.

This was the church’s 11th week of resumed in-person services, Pastor LaMotte said. Still, he said church is not the same as it was before the pandemic.

“I think a lot of what people came to church for was their connection to other people.” While that’s still possible, he said that now “it’s much more limited and at a distance.”

Safety is a top priority for the church, the pastor emphasized.

“We have been following the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines and the state guidelines as closely as possible, so we can keep those that choose to come back safe,” he said.

In addition to encouraging social distancing, Pastor LaMotte said flyers and offering plates have been eliminated and that those in attendance are required to wear their masks when not seated.

“One of the biggest things is we have everyone check in,” he said. “That way, in case anyone tests positive who was at our worship service, we can go back and call everyone who was there and let them know they should be tested.”

Many older folks who are taking social distancing seriously feel safer at the outdoor services. Some even parked their cars on the lawn and listened through rolled-down windows.

“We used to go to the 9:30, but now, it’s safer not to be inside,” said Diana Dauley, who was there with her husband, Wayne Klaus. “You can distance yourself a little more outside.”

She put a big premium on praying together in person.

“When you have a big group of people praying together, it’s more meaningful,” she said. “You can just feel God’s spirit amongst us. I pray by myself, too, but it is wonderful when you’re together.”

Julie Watson of Lincoln also appreciated Avenue’s outdoor services. She was there with her husband, Larry, and her kids, Rhett, 7, and Ellie, 4.

“We’re just trying to show our kids that no matter what happens in life, it’s good to have that community support and to show others how to be good Christians,” Ms. Watson said.

Worshippers practice social distancing during an outdoor service at the Avenue United Methodist Church last weekend.

“We actually haven’t been inside a church physically, so this is the safest for us and our children because we stay in our family unit,” she said.

But Avenue is not Ms. Watson’s regular church. Before the pandemic, she and her family worshiped at Orchard Church, another Methodist establishment in Magnolia.

“Steve was our pastor previously, so we’ve been attending (Avenue) since our church has closed,” she said.

Ms. Watson’s friend, Nicole Perry of Milford, another transplant from Orchard, was also at the Sunday night service with her husband, Curtis, and her kids, Addison, 10, and Bailey, 6. She emphasized the importance of continuing to see church friends.

“This is our church, this is our friends, this is our family,” Ms. Perry said. “Our kids go to school, they go to church together. We have other activities that we do together.”

Magnolia church members worship in parking lot

The Sunday before, Orchard had actually resumed its in-person services in its parking lot for the first time since February.

“Nobody was really expecting this to last this long,” said Orchard’s Pastor Dave Ingalls.

“It’s not that things got better per se, that we felt comfortable, we just thought we needed to do something,” he said,
“especially for our older folks who aren’t tech-savvy and weren’t picking it up online.”

Pastor Ingalls said Orchard’s initial approach was to wait and see if the situation would improve, but it never did.

“We even had some cases in our own congregation,” he said.

Now, the church is done waiting.

“We’re trying really hard to do the church thing, but do it safely and hold people accountable,” Pastor Ingalls said.

“Crackdown is probably too harsh of a word, but we had cones marking separate areas for people to sit. We made sure people were wearing their masks the whole time,” he said.

Pastor Ingalls said he even had to keep some parishioners who had missed each other dearly from hugging.

Praying over Zoom or Facebook has huge shortcomings when it comes to emulating the interactional facets of church life, he added.

Pastor Steve LaMotte’s wife Andrea, left, and children, Caleb, 4, Chloe, 9, Abbie, 13, and Malachi, 7, participate in an outdoor service in front of the Avenue United Methodist Church.

“The nature of church is to be social,” Pastor Ingalls said. “It’s not just going to the grocery store where you’re passing by people. It’s people you know, people you love, people you want to spend time with and be close to.”

But streaming Sunday services was not a complete failure.

“If you just look at unique views, more people were watching our (livestream) than we ever got in person,” Pastor Ingalls said.

Online services expanding congregation numbers

That was a sentiment echoed by Bishop W. James Thomas II of the largely African American Calvary Baptist Church in Dover.

“We’ve expanded our digital footprint,” he said. “Where we were looking at about 500 or 600 people in worship on a Sunday, now that we’re virtual, we average about 1,000 views per service per week.

“We actually have people who are becoming part of the ministry virtually,” Bishop Thomas said, including “people who don’t even live in the Dover area.”

Calvary has not resumed its in-person services yet, but it hopes to in October. Bishop Thomas said doing services outside isn’t an option for his congregation because they don’t have the outdoor space.

If Calvary does return in October, it will be taking a very cautious approach.

Avenue United Methodist Church Pastor Steve LaMotte leads the congregants in song and prayers.

“If it happens and the numbers bear out, … our sanctuary actually sits 300 people. We’ll probably be bringing in probably a maximum of about 30 people,” Bishop Thomas said. “We’re looking pretty much at a 10% occupancy rate in terms of return to in-person worship and then adding another 30 if things are looking good and then another 30 until we get back to full capacity.”

He emphasized that Calvary’s return to the sanctuary would be slow.

“We believe it’s probably going to be the end of the year, the beginning of next year before we actually see a full return to our congregation numbers pre-COVID,” he said.

Jewish holiday services remain virtual

Jewish synagogues downstate kept their Rosh Hashanah services on virtual platforms this weekend and leaders plan to do so as the Jewish New Year continues.

Rabbi Beth Cohen, who is rabbi emeritus at the Seaside Jewish Community in Rehoboth Beach and the rabbi-in-residence at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Lewes, said attending services virtually is nothing new. She said churches of every kind have been taping services for several years now, so that shut-ins, the sick and people who can’t get to the events can participate via livestreaming.

The Seaside Jewish Community has been recording its services at Epworth United Methodist Church for the past 15 years, she said.

“It is challenging,” she said. “I’m in touch with a lot of different colleagues who are in their own synagogues, and the vast majority of congregations across the world, not just in the United States, are doing virtual services. There are some that are trying to do something in person with appropriate social distancing and taking care of health concerns. The vast majority are doing virtual.”

Congregation Beth Sholom, at 340 N. Queen St. in Dover, was livestreaming its services, and has invested in equipment to reach members that way since the synogagogue closed March 11, according to Herb Konowitz, who serves as the finance chairman of the group.

A Zoom service will be held Sunday at 9:30 a.m. and a shofar-blowing in the field behind the synagogue, followed by Tashlich, a customary Jewish atonement ritual meaning “casting off,” at Silver Lake with masks and appropriate social distancing.

Catholics ‘longing’ to attend Mass

Calvary may be in the minority among local churches in terms of its abundant caution. Even the Diocese of Wilmington, which all Catholic churches in Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore answer to, authorized a return to in-person services in June.

“When we were given the OK to resume public Masses, we gave direction and help to all of our parishes,” said Bob Krebs, the diocese’s communications director.

“Right now, it’s a third capacity, and as long as they can do the social distancing and do the cleaning between Masses and make sure that attendees wear masks and so forth, then Masses are taking place once again,” he said.

Andrea LaMotte welcomes congregants for an outdoor church service at the Avenue United Methodist Church.

“In the Catholic tradition, we believe that the bread and wine that the priest consecrates during Mass is the actual blood, body and soul of Jesus in the form of bread and wine,” Mr. Krebs said. “You can’t receive what we call the Eucharist by watching on TV. You have to go to Mass to do that.”

This, Mr. Krebs said, is why it’s so important to allow parishioners to return in person.

“We found that throughout the months that we were not able to go to Mass on Sunday, our people were just longing to receive Jesus and the Eucharist,” he said.

Mr. Krebs also pointed out that Scripture encourages gathering for in-person prayer.

“Jesus said that when two or more are gathered in my name, I am with you,” he said.

Furthermore, Mr. Krebs noted that church is an important outlet for many to combat their feelings of loneliness.

“For a lot of folks, their social life revolves around their church,” he said. It’s “their friends, their family, their people that they see every week.”

Still, Mr. Krebs emphasized that it is perfectly acceptable for a faithful Catholic to not attend services if he or she doesn’t feel safe doing so.

Bishop Thomas said that it’s likely easier for smaller congregations to return safely than it would be for his, but he prayed that other church leaders were being safe about it.

“My major concern is that as pastors, we have social and moral obligations to our people,” he said. “It’s necessary that we’re making sure that we’re taking care of our people.”

The bishop said that “science is not an enemy of faith. It’s a compliment of faith.” He prayed that other church leaders were “using both faith and reason in their decision-making.”