By John W. Coleman
“It felt good. It did look strange in our sanctuary Sunday, with all our members wearing masks and sitting apart from each other. But it really didn’t feel strange because it was great to be there, and we were still doing church.”
That’s how the Rev. Kay Painter summed up Sunday worship on May 10, as members of First UMC Mt. Carmel came home for Mother’s Day, receiving carnations and the welcoming embrace of their beloved sanctuary. They had not worshiped there for nearly two months during the deadly COVID-19 pandemic that has resulted in church closures and stay-at-home orders from the state government.
But now Mt. Carmel and surrounding communities in less-populated Northumberland County are in Gov. Tom Wolf’s yellow-phase of mitigation efforts, meaning some limited relaxing of the extreme measures that shut down most businesses, services and public gatherings. It is the only county in the Eastern PA Conference for now where churches can resume onsite worship and events. But they must be limited to 25 participants in a room and maintain mask-wearing and physical distancing protocols among those present.
Three of the county’s 13 UM churches decided to hold services Sunday, May 10. Several others plan to reopen by June 7, and still others may wait longer.
Thirty-two people came to First UMC Mt. Carmel Sunday, but only 25 could be in the sanctuary at a time. Others would step outside as needed. And the few children who came went to another room for Sunday school.
Those who remained spread out without being asked and “there was no grumbling,” Painter said. They even kept their distance of at least 6 feet apart when receiving communion, which First Church typically serves every Sunday.
Some had trouble—as many do—peeling back the cellophane covering on the now-popular covered wafers and juice packaged together. One man prompted a rare moment of laughter when he struggled to drink the juice while wearing a protective face shield.
There were no handshakes or embraces for the passing of the peace; but instead members just waved to each other.
“I never realized how much reading facial expressions depends on seeing the lower half of the face,” Painter told her congregation, many of whom were not sitting where she’s used to seeing them. “I couldn’t see half their faces under the masks. So, I told them, ‘I can’t tell if you’re smiling or frowning.’”
After service, the pastor and lay leader took a small folding table outside and set it up to offer communion and Mother’s Day carnations to passersby. She had earlier offered outdoor communion to members and neighbors on Easter Sunday, April 12, even though there was no church service.
“On this Sunday we gave carnations to about six people who came by and we served communion to two,” Painter reported. They were both Catholic. One woman pulled her car over to ask what was going on. “When we told her, she jumped out of her car, ran over to our table, knelt down on the concrete pavement and started praying while waiting to receive communion. She was so grateful to be able to have communion again.”
“That made this all worth it,” said the lay leader looking on. Ten minutes later a man who said he just wanted to get out of the house saw them up the street, came by and began to share about “the rough life he’d lived,” Painter recalled. She gave him a mask to wear. “He wanted to receive communion but said he couldn’t because he gave up drinking wine. I told him it was OK; we only had grape juice. He got excited, and we gave him communion right there.”
As a member of the local ministerium, Painter knows the other churches in Mt. Carmel, and she believes First Church was the only one open for worship Sunday. She may put balloons outside on Pentecost Sunday, May 31, and offer “sidewalk communion” again on Father’s Day, June 21.
First Church had not worshiped at all, not even online, since its building closed after March 15. My congregation said no to Zoom and livestreaming,” Painter said. “Many of my members don’t have computers or cellphones, and they don’t fool with texting or other technology. So, I just call everyone on a list to check on them.”
“I miss my church,” some members told her Sunday. “I’m so glad to be here.”
Pastors share reopening plans, concerns with DS
Many members are missing their churches, but many are being cautious about returning. That includes paying attention to helpful guidelines for reopening offered by the conference and other online sources. The Rev. Steve Morton, North District Superintendent, talked with Painter by phone on Saturday and seven other pastors in a Zoom video-chat.
The Rev. Misty Fuller welcomed Clark’s Grove UMC members and guests back to church Sunday. But they worshiped outside, seated inside their 40 vehicles, while she preached and the church musician played over a loudspeaker from a raised platform. They last worshiped outdoors this way in March, before they were told to stop.
While they have since used Facebook Live to offer worship and evening prayer via livestream video, Fuller enjoyed seeing the people again and hearing them honk “Amen!” with their vehicle horns. She also serves Zion UMC in Shamokin. Her lay leader and fiancé, both nurses, safely handed out bulletins and Mother’s Day flowers.
“People were glad to gather again, even in their cars, the pastor said, “but I don’t know when we’ll reenter the sanctuary again. It’s too soon to be safe. Folks are still getting sick and going to the hospital. I don’t want neighbors pointing to us. I want to help our people ease back into reopening. It may be the end of June before we make that decision.”
The other pastors on Saturday’s Zoom call also had mixed feelings about resuming worship onsite. At Elysburg UMC the Rev. Michelle Beissel has medical professionals in the congregation who are not eager to see the church reopen. “We’re doing nothing until we move to the green phase,” she said, referring to the governor’s final phase of reopening with more relaxed mitigation protocols.
Beissel’s other church, Millers Crossroads UMC—the farthest northwest church in the conference—won’t reopen for a while, partly because 46 of the state’s confirmed COVID-19 cases are in its zip code. “I have to keep them in mind,” she said. “I don’t have a choice.”
While other churches have been worshiping on Zoom and Facebook Live, Ash Grove UMC worships by conference call because not everyone has Internet service. “We don’t want to eliminate some members from worship,” said the Rev. Bonnie Yeager, pastor. “We’re waiting two weeks to decide when we will reenter the church.” She lives with two medical emergency service personnel, she said, whose concerns about the potential harm of reopening too soon “are very real.”
First UMC Kulpmont planned a “limited reopening” this past Sunday and mailed notices to members, said Julian Milewski, pastor. And Emmanuel UMC in Shamokin planned to use its outdoor pavilion for worship, reported Bonnie Alleman, pastor.
St. John’s UMC in Shamokin plans to open for worship June 7. They will have two services to facilitate physical distancing, said the Rev. Karyn Fisher, pastor. Trevorton and Irish Valley UMCs will also reopen June 7, said the Rev. Beverly Petrovich, pastor.
The Rev. Zach Hopple said his church, First UMC Shamokin, which averages about 60 in worship, has some variables that may be too difficult to safely control. They will continue to offer daily devotionals on their Facebook page and website and add recorded services. Hopple leaves to start a new appointment in July.
Being able to anticipate a reopening date can be encouraging. Fisher described being in St. John’s sanctuary recently with the leadership team to plan its reopening.
“We ended by saying the Lord’s Prayer together,” she recalled. “It’s been about eight weeks since we last were together to do that—to pray together in person, not on Zoom. The powerful impact that moment had on our leaders and how it felt was heartwarming and wonderful.”