Now that King County is in Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phased “Safe Start” approach to reopening the state amid the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, religious services and faith organizations are allowed to resume pre-pandemic era operations — that is with numerous limitations.
Worship services, ceremonies, holiday celebrations, study classes and more are permitted after a months-long ban. But indoor facilities can only house 200 socially distanced people (or up to 25 percent of its capacity — whichever is less). Choirs are banned, and singing isn’t permitted if you aren’t wearing a mask.
These are only a few of the limitations imposed by the state to mitigate the virus’s spread. Early on in the pandemic era, spiritual gatherings were frequently touted as “superspreaders.”
In the months leading up to modified Phase One, during which Phase 2 regulations for religious services were first introduced in King County but to an even more limited degree, religious organizations locally and nationwide innovated to make sure that constituents could continue to worship, but safely. Stories abounded of services being held over Zoom, outdoors albeit with proper social distancing, sometimes involving constituents staying put in their cars, and more.
Phase 2 permits somewhat of a return to normalcy. But not all organizations, including those based on Mercer Island, are responding the same way. While some are transitioning back into in-person services (such as the Island Synagogue, which didn’t respond to the Reporter’s request for an interview before deadline), some are wary of county guidelines and are, for now, sticking with a virtual emphasis.
Rev. Roberta Rominger, pastor of the United Church of Christ Congregational Church on Mercer Island, said that the organization “basically moved the whole life of our church onto Zoom” in early March, before Inslee’s initial stay-at-home order. She said that the United Church of Christ’s conference minister had called, before the government did, to implore online worship.
Zoom, the pastor said, hasn’t hindered things — it’s actually helped attendance. The Mercer Island church, in addition to its weekly Sunday services, also virtually puts on a book club and a men’s pub night. At the beginning of the pandemic, the church additionally had a nightly “drop-in” session in case people were feeling isolated or wanted someone to talk to. Gradually, this transitioned into different groups, and occurred on various nights of the week.
Rominger said she has been impressed by older folks at the church who started out declaring that they essentially wanted nothing to do with online-only worship. But after that initial stubbornness, they indulged their curiosities, and have since made it work.
“Almost everybody has succeeded in getting online,” Rominger said, adding that the church is diligent about checking in with people over the phone.
For the time being, church services will remain digital-only.
“It’s not only a matter of what the regulations allow, but also where our congregants feel safe,” Rominger said.
Christoph Reiner, the bishop for the Mercer Island Congregation of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, said that the organization has not resumed in-person services. Instead, out of an abundance of caution, members continue to hold services individually, with everything centered within the homes of members.
“Worship continues to take place, but it’s more centralized,” Reiner said, adding that the church isn’t planning to resume in-person meetings at the moment immediately.
Though governmental restrictions have been stringent, Reiner said he hasn’t felt limited in what can be done — things are just being conducted differently. It has been hard not being able to all meet under one roof, he said, as he and congregation members consider themselves an extended family.
Baptisms have still occurred, but instead of having a larger congregation come together, they’re happening in meeting houses. Reiner, for instance, recently baptized his son in Puget Sound. The celebration was attended by family and “was a beautiful experience.” It might not have been traditional, but it was still meaningful.
Reiner recently conducted a wedding, but in lieu of using a larger venue, immediate family gathered on a hiking trail.
Reiner has also been hosting “drive-thru” prayers at the building’s parking lot.
“The idea was to give members of our congregation and members of the community an opportunity to drive up with a car and share a prayer — to share a message of hope, of upliftment,” he explained. “It’s an opportunity to discuss any questions people might have about faith in general.”
Reiner is looking forward to a return to normalcy. Like most others, though, he knows how much uncertainty sits at the center of it. He admires the way members of the congregation have dealt with this difficult reality.
“We’re so used to knowing what lies ahead of us,” Reiner said. “We have this inherent understanding that we understand what the next few months will look like, what the next year will look like…I have found that there was a tremendous resilience that we found during this time, and people are really stepping up to be more engaged with one another and finding different ways to minister to other people within the congregation and other service opportunities within the community. I think this has had some challenges. But there have been new and exciting opportunities for us to reach out to others, and to the community during this time.”
Rev. Elizabeth Riley, the rector at Mercer Island’s Emmanuel Church, said that the organization transitioned to online-only March 8 after she and others received word of a potential exposure.
Riley noted that the shift to online wasn’t necessarily novel. Last year, she used Facebook Live when snowy weather prevented in-person service.
The first couple of weeks of pandemic-era Facebook Live services were a bit chaotic — “that was me at my house, with my husband, with my 4-year-old and 2-year-old climbing all over me,” she recalled with a laugh.
Eventually, Riley said, services moved from Facebook Live to Zoom. She now live-streams from the sanctuary rather than at her home.
Technology-emphasizing services have marked a significant shift. The church traditionally has communion every Sunday: “we gather, we pray, preach and then we celebrate the Eucharist, and share a meal. And that doesn’t translate onto Zoom — you can’t really consecrate and share the bread and wine through a screen.”
What Riley decided to do is instead focus on a morning prayer liturgy. There isn’t a communion, but she and constituents still hear scripture and pray. She’ll preach, and sometimes the family minister will, too.
She noted that the switch from Facebook Live to Zoom has been pivotal. Now, people can see each other’s faces and chat, and can continue the long-standing tradition of having coffee after a Sunday service.
The attendance of the summer season thus far is better than it has been in recent years. She said that people stuck at home have been able to do deeper studies and self-reflection. The youth group has been thriving, too.
“I’ve been incredibly impressed with the way in which our community has translated to being online,” Riley said. “We’re not a particularly young congregation. I’m in my 30s, but we have a lot of our congregation who I think if I said six months ago, ‘we’re going to worship entirely online,’ there’s no way…But everyone…even people in their 90s, are getting on Zoom every Sunday.”
While the state government is now allowing some in-person services, Riley highlighted that while what the governor orders or allows for is one thing, what the diocese allows is another. As of June 28, the church’s diocese is not allowing communion. Right now, there isn’t “a rush to get back to being in person.”
Riley said that the church recently formed a committee exploring what it would take to start gathering again in Phase 3. Whatever is done will probably take the shape of a hybrid model, likely starting with a small, midweek Eucharist and keeping primary Sunday liturgies online, Riley said.
“It’s not an easy thing,” she said. “It’s temperature checks and cleaning — we still would only be able to do a very limited communion. Based on our diocesan guidelines, we would be looking at having 50 people or less when we’re a congregation that worships close to 100 on a Sunday.”
Both Riley and Rominger underlined that even though limited gatherings have been deemed possible by the state government, the opportunity nonetheless is, in some ways, antithetical to their values of inclusion. Inevitably, you have to turn some people away. It’s also nerve-racking to think about what could happen if gatherings, even if properly socially distanced and even if cleanliness guidelines were followed to a T, nevertheless fostered viral spreading.
“We don’t want to leave anybody out,” Rominger said. “We don’t want to resume in person until everybody feels safe to come…My biggest fear is that we open too soon and that people do get sick because of coming to church. That would be a total nightmare.”
“[When we turn some people away], we start fragmenting in our community in a way that feels inauthentic to what I believe the Emmanuel community desires,” Riley said. “Something that’s beautiful about being online — as much as I dislike not getting to see my people in person — is that we do all get to be there equally, regardless of our risk level with coronavirus. We’re fortunate to have the technology and the ability within our congregation to do that. Not every congregation is going to be that lucky.”