YORK -- Alternating rows of pews are flanked by white ribbon, carefully and uniformly tied – a peaceful reminder of social distancing in a time of chaos.
It’s Monday morning Mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church in York. The Rev. Denton Morris leads the faithful early risers, who kneel in prayer, scattered within the modified seating. There are a few couples who sit together, but others maintain social distance from their fellow parishioners, seemingly attending the service alone.
A young woman in a black-and-gray striped sweater, her hair pulled back in a messy ponytail kneels in a pew to the back, alone. She is clearly deep in thought, her forehead pressing on firmly-clasped hands and eyes closed.
There are plenty of things to pray about these days. The novel coronavirus has infected us beyond the confines of the human body. “’Stay healthy and stay hopeful’ is the key phrase I use quite a bit,” said Pastor Luke Haidle of Henderson’s Living Hope Church. “Our hope is not in a vaccine or in the government providing an answer – ultimately our answer is in Jesus Christ.”
The government continues attempts to provide an answer. Haidle seems skeptical. “It has been interesting to observe how early and quickly [changes] happened.”
Haidle said he and church leaders have paid close attention to and respected directed health measures. For now, Living Hope Church provides online resources for all ages. Haidle said he realizes that other avenues will be pursued. “People are discovering great content online. Families have had to learn and relearn how to take full ownership in their faith,” he said. As a result, Haidle said, he anticipates the role of religious leaders to shift more towards pastoral care and personal ministering. In the meantime, Haidle said, in-person church services as they once were will resume “when we have freedom and blessing from the government.”
When the threat of COVID-19 reached his community, Haidle and his congregation were in the middle of studying Philippians. “When he [Paul the Apostle] was suffering the loss of religious freedom he was still able to encourage these strong ideas of hope and faith.”
It was in Philippians 4:13 that Paul wrote, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.”
Paul’s letter to the Philippians was written from a Roman prison, and is considered one of his most touching, inspiring writings.
Emmanuel Lutheran Church’s outreach efforts have been like digital and over-the-air letters to the faithful. “We know it’s not good to be completely isolated,” said Pastor Ben Kaiser. “I’m hopeful that we will continue to seek ways to connect with others.” Kaiser and church leaders have planned and prayed throughout the pandemic. It was recently decided Emmanuel would again open for in-person services.
Still, services at the York church have a different look: collection plates will not be passed between parishioners. Seating at services is limited to 90, and calling ahead for one of the Saturday or Sunday seats is encouraged.
The inspirations for these changes are but influenced by directed health measures. Kaiser said he continues to ask his church community to consider: “How do I best love my neighbor -- that includes living with their wellness in mind.”
Directed health measures do come into play. While some of his peers across many religions have expressed concerns about increasing disconnect between religious freedom and safety, Kaiser said, “I don’t see those things as conflicting. We want to honor God’s command to love our neighbor. I don’t think this is one of these situations where the government is trying to take away our religious liberties.”
“They’re not at odds with one another. It’s a freedom to do what we ought to do. Our religious liberties should lead us to a concern for our neighbor,” Father Morris said.
He’s seen that concern – and appreciation for what can and ought to be done. “There’s definitely been a change in intentionality and tone when it comes to reaching out and offering time and concern for one another,” Morris said. “There has been a renewed appreciation for the time they have in church, with eyes toward protecting everyone the best we can.”
That protection includes social distancing. “A lot of it is the distancing between attendees and Mass,” Morris said. “This virus uses our social connections to find us,” he added. “Those that are feeling lonely and need a prayer, please reach out and ask, ‘Can you pray for me?’”
Morris said he knows the specter of COVID-19 looms. “We can’t quite see it-see it, but we know it’s there.” In response, Morris quotes Colossians 3:1-2, “If you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.”
Mass celebrants deliberately, soulfully rise and make their way to the front of the church. Morris has produced a bottle of hand sanitizer from behind the pulpit; unfazed, the parishioners solemnly accept the body and blood of Christ and return to their seats.
The young woman again kneels, this time resting her elbows on the empty pew in front of her, eyes closed and her forehead cradled in her hands. Only God knows what she’s praying for.