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New Orleans churchgoers return

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Tabitha111 View Drop Down
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    Posted: May 18 2020 at 9:20am

*Interesting news story on churches opening in New Orleans*

It had been nine weeks since the Rev. Matthew Johnston, the pastor of St. Benilde Catholic Church in Metairie, had looked out into the pews and seen rows of parishioners inside the sacred building, as coronovirus-related closures for months forced shuttering of houses of worship, schools and businesses throughout Louisiana.

During a 9 a.m. Mass on Sunday, Johnston said he was grateful for the resurrection of tradition, as he conducted a lightly attended Catholic service, one of the first to be held indoors since Gov. John Bel Edwards gave the green light for limited interaction under a Phase 1 reopening of businesses and neighborhoods.

"It is very consoling to my heart to be able to look out to y'all," Johnston said during the ceremony, which he held at times wearing a cloth mask. "It is wonderful that we can restore that which has been so essential to our lives."

St. Benilde was among dozens of churches belonging to at least three Christian denominations to reopen their doors over the weekend in a socially distant way, while other religious organizations chose to wait at least until the end of May before resuming in-person services amid continued fears of spreading the deadly COVID-19.

COVID-19 has killed more than 2,400 Louisianians, but cases, hospitalizations and deaths have slowed after two months of social-distancing mandates. In response, Edwards ordered a careful approach in reopening local economies and communities, and most religious organizations have appeared willing to oblige.

Under state rules, St. Benilde has been ordered to operate at 25% capacity, or a limit of about 160 people for a congregation of its size.

But on the first Sunday Mass to be held indoors, fewer than 75 people filled the pews, which had been roped off in a way that kept people spaced apart. Although they weren't required in order to attend, most people wore masks at the church's recommendation, and there were few spoken interactions between parishioners.

In New Orleans, even stricter measures had been put in place for houses of worship. Under Cantrell's rules, choirs are banned and churches are limited to 100 people, even if 25% occupancy would reach well above that number. Some local churches also required masks.

Some Catholic churches posted sign-up sheets online ahead of the Sunday services, while others employed ushers to turn people away if capacity was reached, according to Sarah McDonald, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Franklin Avenue Baptist Church officials had also expressed plans to reopen Sunday, after The New Orleans Baptist Association said pastors there had autonomy to make their own decisions.

And at the First Presbyterian Church on South Claiborne Avenue, Reverend Kathleen Crighton's 11 a.m. service began with a plea. “You don’t have to keep your social distance from us,” the congregation intoned as they read the prewritten prayer, “and we don’t have to keep our distance from you.”

It ended with a parishioner stepping to the altar and presenting the church with a box of 25 coronavirus antibody test kits that would allow members to determine if they had been exposed to the disease.

Crighton said her church constitution empowered the elders of individual churches to vote on when congregations could return to the pews, and theirs voted to return as soon as possible. As far as she knew, hers was the only Presbyterian ministry in New Orleans to test the waters so soon.

The reason was simple, Crighton said: “It’s because we want to be here.”

Surprisingly, Crighton said, it hasn’t been the younger, less vulnerable members of the congregation who’ve been most ready to return. It’s been the older worshipers, one might think would be more reluctant.

Church elder Bruce Mather, said that if anyone should be afraid, it’s him. As a 73-year-old triple bypass and brain surgery survivor, he’s aware of his susceptibility to COVID-19, yet he was ready to take the risk as soon as the rules permitted.

“You can’t live your life under a rock,” he said. “Well, you can, but it’s not in my nature.”

Mark Van Hala, 62, agreed. 

“I’m not afraid of it,” he said of the virus. “The only thing I fear is God, and since I fear him, he protects me.”

Even before Sunday’s comeback service, Van Hala and others had been meeting casually for Bible study sessions in the so-called pumpkin patch beside the church — a yard used for a fall children’s attraction. He said he and the others had counted on social distancing and sunshine for safety.

Before the coronavirus, there might have been 40 worshipers; on Sunday, there were at least 20, as others chose to avail themselves of online video sermons, Zoom chats and other offerings for anyone who’s not comfortable mingling.

Crighton said she doesn’t want anyone to feel “that if you’re not here, you’re not here.”  

Throughout the area, there were still many who weren't comfortable meeting face to face, even within the Catholic church. Officials with St. Peter Claver in the Treme, for instance, said they were weeks away from face-to-face services.

Bishop Morris Thompson, of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, and Bishop Cynthia Harvey, of the United Methodist Church, had already asked local churches in those denominations to hold off on in-person services until late May at the earliest.

And Rabbi Josh Pernick, of Congregation Beth Israel, said he didn't know of any synagogues, including his, that were willing to reopen quite so soon.

"It's a conversation we're having now, as we look at guidelines," Pernick said of Beth Israel's plans.

It's unclear how long limitations on religious services will remain.

As Cantrell has warned, the timeline for Phase 1 is open-ended, and it's based on trends in the local and statewide data.

If numbers of new infections, hospitalizations and deaths continue to trend downward, the city could move into Phase 2 as early as mid-June. Or restrictions could be tightened even further once again, if self-regulated social distancing doesn't work as well as officials hope.

Back at St. Benilde, the sparse population in pews wasn't the only change. No chalice was available for communion, there were no hugs during an offering of peace and there were no Bibles or hymn books tucked into pew shelves.

But other familiar sights and sounds remained — the soft morning light filtered through stained glass windows, a baby's whimpers interjecting sung hymns and smiles and nods from passing neighbors and friends. 

To at least some parishioners, it was a welcome return.

"It's comforting to be here," said 67-year-old Mark Laborde, a contractor whose parents were founding parishioners. "The community is what it's all about ... and we're here to support each other."

'When you feel as though you can't do something, the simple antidote is action: Begin doing it. Start the process, even if it's just a simple step, and don't stop at the beginning.'
Marcus B
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