ON THE SCENE: Having faith and reopening our local churches

Rev. John Yonkovig, of St. Agnes Catholic Church in Lake Placid and St. Brendan’s Catholic Church in Keene (Photo provided— Naj Wikoff)

The faith community is beginning to discuss how they can reopen their houses of worship safely within the confines of physical distancing, wearing masks, and the other COVID-19 safety measures.

Beyond that, they are asking, “What kind of society do we want to have going forward?”

Within the Christian faith, a variety of fundamental elements pose particular challenges: sharing the Eucharist, singing psalms, baptisms, weddings and funerals to highlight a few. Also, most chapels and churches in our region are relatively small, making it especially challenging to meet distancing-safety rules during a time when no vaccine is available and remains unlikely for at least a year out.

Currently, many are bringing their services to their congregations via social media, be that directly as the Keene Valley Congregational Church is doing via Zoom, or in-directly as is St. Agnes Catholic Church in Lake Placid, which directs its parishioners participate in Mass online with Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire as well as the Mass by Bishop Terry LaValley through the Diocese of Ogdensburg’s website.

In addition, the Rev. John Yonkovig sends out weekly YouTube messages to parishioners’ homes and posts them on the St. Agnes website.

Rev. John Sampson, pastor of the Keene Valley Congregational Church (Photo provided— Naj Wikoff)

“There is certainly a great eagerness by many parishioners to come together again for Eucharist, and public worship,” said Yonkovig. “There is a real desire because they miss that I think despite the fact they’ve been able to watch online or on TV. There is something about a communal gathering with fellow believers that makes all the difference. We want people to feel very safe upon returning to church. That’s our priority. The challenges though, are significant.”

“A lot of the questions that we have to answer are not black and white, they’re very gray,” said the Rev. John Sampson, pastor of the Keene Valley Congregational Church. “They have to take in competing desires, for instance, singing. From a health perspective, singing is one of the practices that’s the riskiest from the standpoint of the possibility of spreading the virus. On the other hand, singing is core to our experience of worship experience when we come together as a congregation.”

Both churches have established committees to help explore every aspect of their service and make recommendations that include everything from using touchless thermometers with everyone who comes to church, requiring people to wear masks, and asking people to sanitize their hands before entering. Keeping people/family groups the acceptable 6 feet apart is another major challenge as doing so radically reduces the number of people that could attend at a given time.

“We’ve always had a policy that the doors are open on Sunday morning. Whoever wants to come can come,” said Sampson. “How do we move into a situation where we define the maximum number of people who can attend worship? How are we going to make that known? How are we going to manage situations if our doors are open people might just show up? Do we have a schedule, and you sign up for this time, one of the multiple services? It leads to many questions about addressing the very basic need to meet together.”

St. Agnes is prepared to use just 25% of the seating capacity but hold three liturgies over the weekend as means of enabling all who wish to attend the ability to do so. Further, the pew you sit on will not be used until the following weekend. One of the greater challenges will be communion. Upon arrival and during the liturgy, everybody will be wearing a mask. If they don’t have one, a mask will be provided.

During communion, they will come forward 6 feet apart, remove their mask, receive the Eucharist.

“I think all that will flow very smoothly as people become accustomed to a new flow in life,” said Yonkovig. “Though I never thought I’d be encouraging people to sing and respond softly in church, but they will be wearing masks. There will be no robust choir, no choir at all.”

As there is a lot of technical, lighting and sound challenges in St. Agnes, they decided not to take on live streaming. KVCC, on the other hand, has become quite adept at streaming its services, creating a variety of online faith and ministry discussion groups, and even an online post-service coffee hour wherein the attendees are broken in randomly selected groups of five that have become quite appealing.

An added and unexpected bonus at KVCC has been the significant twenty to thirty percent increase in attendance, many being seasonal residents who heretofore attended only when in town during the summer and holiday weekends. Further, there has been attendance from others in the community that normally don’t come to church, and a few from other countries, one as far afield as Australia.

“In the past, we accepted the dynamic if you were a more seasonal resident you joined us for a month or two during the summer, and then it was thought to be acceptable that you’d not be joining us for 10 months out of the year,” said Sampson. “This experience has shown us that’s no longer an acceptable position to have. When given the opportunity, our more seasonal members chose to join us. Moving forward, online worship is not going away. Even if we had a vaccine tomorrow, online worship has proven to be as integral as a congregation.”

Both Father John and Pastor John stressed that their churches never closed; thus, to imply they are reopening is a misnomer. They only suspended meeting in person, which will begin again — though carefully and with safety considerations highest in mind.

“Christ’s commandment, the great commandment, is to love God with everything you’ve got, and to love your neighbor in the same way,” said Sampson. “So, for me, all the decisions we’re going to make, all the questions were going to ask, need to be founded on this idea of love. Whereas some people might like to come into the church and be able to sing just as they always have, we need to ask ourselves, with the possibility of infection, does that show love for our neighbor? We have to think about all of these things and ground it in the sense of love, a sense of compassion, and a sense of caring. The kind of love that Jesus talks about is a selfless love. We need to think about how we show a love that, at times, asks us to put down our self-centered interests and allows us to act in ways that show compassion and concern for the other.”

From the Scripture, Yonkovig drew on several teaching to guide his Congregation through the pandemic and new the reopening of the church. He’s used Psalm 23, The Lord is my Shepard, that the Lord is guiding the valleys of darkness, along with Julian of Norwich, All Will be Well, a woman who lived through the great pandemics and human suffering caused by the Black Death and cruelty of serfdom that led to the Peasants’ Revolt. Also, Jesus’s words, “Come to me, all who are weary.”

“What are we reopening ourselves back to?” asked Yonkovig. “I believe that this is a time for reopening ourselves to a new understanding of life and that we come to understand what truly is essential. I have seen some silver linings in this pandemic where families and neighbors have been brought closer together, neighbors who didn’t even know each other. There is an increased desire to care for the elderly. We have the opportunity to open ourselves up to something that’s more human and, in a sense, more divine if we can truly recognize what’s important in life — that we need to care for one another.”

Bond traders on Wall Street were not listed as essential workers, but the people who stock our grocery shelves are. Yet it is the bond traders who earn in the millions, while those who work in grocery stores, care for the elderly, serve as nurses, firefighters and police earn far, far less. The COVID-19 virus has brought to life the staggering percentage of our society that lives paycheck to paycheck because such large and an increasing percentage of our nation’s wealth is in the bank accounts of the few.

“We increasingly strive for a very sophisticated lifestyle that being made possible off the backs of people who can barely make ends meet,” said Yonkovig. “I think the whole economic system has to be looked at in our country.”