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Churches moving slowly to reopen in-person services

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

 

The Rev. Andrew Pavlak, the pastor at the San Felipe de Neri Church at Old Town, stands behind the altar Friday in the church’s main sanctuary. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal)

The Rev. Andrew Pavlak may be one of the first Albuquerque-area pastors to open church doors to parishioners in weeks.

But don’t show up to San Felipe de Neri Church this Sunday, don’t count on getting a seat at the first Mass back – and definitely don’t show up without proper protective gear.

“No mask? You don’t come in,” said Pavlak, who plans to host the first in-person Mass at the church in months on Saturday, May 23. Attendance will be limited and on a first-come first-serve basis.

After weeks of state-mandated restrictions on mass gatherings that included houses of worship, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham this week announced some rules would be relaxed. The loosening has evolved over the week – at a Wednesday news conference, Lujan Grisham said that starting Saturday churches and other houses of worship will be able to meet in person as long as they restrict in-person attendance to 10% of each building’s capacity as set by the fire marshal.

However, Friday afternoon the governor raised the capacity to 25% for religious gatherings, which matches the rule that will be in place for retailers.

The San Felipe de Neri Church at Old Town in Albuquerque is planning its first in-person service for May 23. Many local churches have yet to set their reopening dates, despite newly loosened restrictions from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe in turn will slowly begin instituting a phased-in opening, starting this weekend. Leaders issued a statement saying pastors may “adjust allowed attendance accordingly for this weekend and thereafter until further notice,” in addition to limiting to less if they feel it’s prudent.

“Communion is going to happen at the end of Mass – not when it normally happens,” Pavlak said of the service next week at San Felipe de Neri Church. “There’s no hand holding. The numbers are very limited.”

Another church within the Archdiocese, St. Therese of the Infant Jesus Parish and Catholic school in Albuquerque’s North Valley, won’t hold public Mass until the weekend of June 6-7. The church plans to stay with the 10% occupancy load, said the Rev. Vincent Paul Chavéz.

“I was one of the faith leaders who was asked to advise the governor and my advice was a total shutdown until June, and not lifting restrictions in May,” Chavéz said.

The church will continue to live stream Mass daily through its website at www.littleflowerabq.org.

The Diocese of Las Cruces will allow its parishes to resume daily Masses in churches as well as weekly confessions, with restrictions. The Diocese of Gallup, on the other hand, is not opening its doors at all yet, said spokeswoman Suzanne Hammons.

“Right now we don’t really have any plans to open up more because we’re kind of in a unique situation here with the Navajo Nation and other reservations that are still getting hit really hard by the virus and deaths still spiking,” Hammons said.

She said church officials are looking at “what we will do when we eventually do reopen,” but for now, she said, priests at churches throughout the diocese will say Mass each day privately and continue to encourage congregants to watch services online.

Slower approach

Meanwhile, leaders of several Albuquerque-area congregations have said despite the new rules, they also are not yet ready to open physical doors.

Hope Church, a congregation in the Northeast Heights that in pre-virus times had about 600 people attend its two Sunday morning services, isn’t rushing to relaunch in-person services.

Paul Murphy, the church’s interim lead pastor, said Friday leaders are committed to going slow both for their congregants’ sake and for that of the broader community.

Sagebrush parishioners snake through the church’s Riverside parking lot, which was converted into a drive-through “safari” for kids. The church doesn’t have a date yet to restart in-person services. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal)

“We’re in the process of trying to figure out at what point we resume public worship,” Murphy said. “That’s not an easy question to answer.”

A church task force – which includes leaders as well as some medical experts – has been hashing out what the future can and should look like. Passing an offering plate? Taking communion? Singing as a group? All up for discussion in the virus era.

“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle where we dump all of the pieces on the table but we don’t really have the picture on the lid,” Murphy said.

In the short-term, Murphy said the church will continue to offer online services.

The prospect of relaunching services poses unique challenges to smaller and mid-sized congregations, said Ryan Bestelmeyer, lead pastor of Refuge Church, which under normal circumstances is home to about 300 people.

“A lot of … small to medium churches, we don’t have (a) large staff,” he said.

Bestelmeyer said the mask requirement would be particularly difficult to enforce at his church, which is attended by many families with young children.

Bestelmeyer said Refuge in the near-term will continue to send out its recorded services online rather than try to relaunch in-person services too quickly.

“It’s still not feasible for us,” he said.

Sagebrush Church, a massive congregation with several locations in Albuquerque and elsewhere across the state, also has yet to set a reopening date for its in-person services. Spokesman Eric Williams said Friday the church – which before the pandemic typically had between 14,000 and 15,000 people attend in-person services – recently sent a survey to 25,000 people asking for input on safety measures that should be in place when those services do start up again.

“At this point, we feel like we can serve our congregation best by continuing to do services online,” Williams said.

In the meantime, Williams said, Sagebrush will continue to double down on its other offerings – online services, and special events like a pop-up drive-through safari it hosted this week for children at its Riverside campus on Coors.

“As much as a setback as our current situation has been for the church … we’ve still seen God move in amazing ways,” Williams said. “What we can do as a church is we can adapt to still provide that help and hope and that spiritual guidance.”

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