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ON THE SCENE: Opening our churches in a perilous moment

From left, Ted Blazer, Bill McGahay and Diane Collins serve as ushers at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Lake Placid. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Now in COVID-19 reopening Phase 3, churches in the region are opening or finalizing their plans to open. A challenge for some, like St. Brendan’s and the Keene Valley Congregational Church, is that their spaces are relatively small and in the summer they typically are packed with a mix of year-round and seasonal residents. Thus, limiting their attendance to 25 people, or a quarter of their congregation as a means of maintaining social-distancing protocols, could result in a need for multiple services or people being turned away.

Pastors are also grappling with addressing from a spiritual perspective the impact of two global pandemics, COVID-19 and racism, while climate change is hurtling down like freight train racing toward a crowd of people caught in a tunnel. Thus, on the one hand, there is an excellent reason for a joyful celebration. People of faith can reconnect, yet from the pulpit come words that are by no means laudatory. Instead, they call for us to open our hearts and minds to the most vulnerable amongst us.

Two weeks ago, Father John Yonkovig, pastor of St. Agnes in Lake Placid and St. Brendan’s in Keene, and the Rev. John Sampson, pastor of the Keene Valley Congregational Church, were wrestling with the logistics of keeping people separated and safe while making sure the services were accessible as many more people have been able to attend online as in person. Both knew that for many, there was an eagerness to come together for worship. At the same time, they understood that people were anxious as a high percentage of congregants are older, in one of the most at-risk categories.

“There is certainly an eagerness on the part of many parishioners to gather again for Eucharist and public worship,” said Father Yonkovig. “They’ve missed that, despite the fact they can watch it on TV or online. There is something about a communal gathering with fellow believers that makes all the difference. So we want people to feel very safe returning to church. That’s our priority. The challenges are significant.”

Both churches established committees to develop recommendations that will consider the most recent state and health guidelines, recommendations from their respective council of churches/diocese, and thoughts expressed by the congregations. Initially for St. Agnes, the plan was to alternate pews: one for the Saturday evening service, one for the Sunday 8 a.m. service, a third for the 10 a.m. Sunday service and limiting the number of attendees. Now volunteer ushers clean the pews between services, allowing for the use of alternating rows at St. Agnes and St. Brendan’s.

The Rev. John Sampson is pastor of the Keene Valley Congregational Church. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

“A lot of the questions we have to answer are not black and white; they are very gray,” said the Rev. John Sampson, pastor of Keene Valley Congregational Church. “Or they have to take in competing desires — for instance, singing. From a health perspective, singing is one of the practices that is the riskiest in terms of spreading the virus. On the other hand, singing is core to our experience of worship when we come together. Our task force will take these competing values and come up with a plan that balances them out somehow.”

At Keene Valley Congregational Church, only one person at a time will be allowed in the church office, 10 people at a time on the church grounds, and the sanctuary space will only be available for 30 people. Those using the sanctuary will be required to wear masks, observe social distancing and clean the areas they use before leaving with provided cleaning supplies. Singing, vital though it is, will not be permitted. There will be no coffee hour, and the bathrooms will not be accessible. The goal is also to broadcast the service online, so those wishing to stay home may participate — and sing their hearts out.

Both leaders knew that having to wear masks in church, not being able to catch up over coffee hour or sing together, and modifying aspects the Eucharist will change the worship experience. They both hope for the early discovery of a vaccine so the services can become more regular. Neither anticipated the planned opening of their churches coinciding with the videotaping of a Black man’s brutal death under the knee of a police officer that has nationally and globally shaken society to its core.

Father Yonkovig’s first words in his sermon upon opening St. Agnes were, “‘I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.’ I never imagined I would begin today’s homily with those words.” A bit further on, he said, “These words have haunted me the last few weeks. The death they express is the exact opposite of the life we celebrate in this Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, Corpus Christi.”

“We are in one of these moments when a lot of things come together in surprising ways,” Father Yonkovig said a few days later. “I think the challenge of faith is to look at the human experience through the eyes of the scriptures; how do we understand our present circumstances through God’s eyes? I think it very easy to get caught up in how the pundits and politicians look at life. Our challenge is to look at life through the eyes of God. Our country, and indeed the world, is at a crisis moment on many levels. There are many bombastic voices out there. God whispers.”

The Rev. John Yonkovig is pastor of St. Agnes Catholic Church in Lake Placid. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

We are facing the confluence of an economic crisis, a health crisis and an environmental disaster, all outcomes of human activity. At the same time, we’ve created a social construct where some feel that others are less worthy than themselves and thus it’s OK to press their knee into the neck of another for eight-and-a-half minutes. The idea that it’s OK to hoard the wealth of the world, leaving billions to starve, or to deny health coverage to hundreds of thousands, or to pollute the air and water and cause millions of life forms to go extinct within our life span, flies in the face of the teachings of Jesus and other faith traditions.

“It’s an unbalance in our spirit that’s gotten us here,” said Pastor Sampson. “I’m not sure that we have the spiritual balance to get ourselves out of it. Advent always opens with an apocalyptic vision. It could be Noah. It could be Jesus at the Temple. In can be the vision of John in Revelations. I think of the image of the pain of giving birth. I wonder if this is such a moment: We are going through so much pain because we are going through giving birth to something new. I think many grieve because they see the loss of something; their image of our nation is passing away. The stories of Advent say yes, there is the pain of so much giving away, but it makes room for something new, something based on justice, love and a true brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity.”

The challenge of such moments is that they are fragile; they leave us vulnerable. We have a hard time, as Yonkovig said, “hearing God’s whisper.”

“Father John’s first homily was captivating,” said Ted Blazer, an usher at St. Agnes. “He nailed it. It was profound; it made you think. His last words were, ‘Take a deep breath.’ That was how he ended it.”

Churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship provide spaces where people from all social strata may come together leaving the self-serving screeching of pundits and politicians behind and have an opportunity to consider where we are, where we’d like to be — the values and actions we need to manifest to get there.

“Father John gives some of the best homilies in the North Country,” said usher Bill McGahay. “No question. His messages are always on point; last week’s message was as well. We are all glad to be back sharing our faith with our friends and family. That’s what churches are for.”