In a world that now includes the COVID-19 pandemic and anti-racism protests, local faith leaders believe America’s houses of worship are essential — even if they choose to not open their physical doors.
On Tuesday, Gov. Phil Murphy announced the effective reopening of the state’s churches and houses of worship when he raised the limits on indoor gatherings from 10 individuals to 50, or 25% capacity — whichever is lowest. Individuals must wear face coverings and stand 6 feet apart. Murphy also expressed that outdoor gatherings protected under First Amendment rights, such as religious events and protests, will not be limited.
“I believe that each church must carefully pray and seek the Lord for doing what is best for their flock,” said the Rev. Rudy Sheptock, senior pastor of the Lighthouse Church in Cape May Court House. “There is no consensus within any congregation these days that can say without hesitation, ‘This is what everyone should do.’”
Temple Beth Shalom in Brigantine is choosing not to open right away, out of caution and safety.
“Given the demographics of our congregation, which are substantially senior citizens, we want to be extra cautious and see how this goes with other locals and other synagogues and churches before we make our decision,” President Jack Lieberman said. “We just don’t want to expose our members at this time.”
Lieberman said the synagogue has put a task force in place to develop a plan to reopen safely, including making hand sanitizer available and keeping a cleaning company on standby.
“All the plans are falling into place, but we’re just not ready to pull the trigger yet,” he said.
Sheptock said his church will open this weekend, with precautions in place.
“We have been doing drive-in services over the last several weeks, and yes, we are planning to also provide inside options come the weekend,” he said.
The church will have inside services 6 p.m. Saturday night and 11 a.m. Sunday morning, while using only 25% of its usual capacity and adhering to social distancing guidelines. Reservations are required to be seated indoors.
The church is making masks available, and Sheptock said a “complete sanitizing” will take place after each indoor service.
Lighthouse’s children and youth ministry will be held outside with parents present. And there will also be a 9 a.m. outdoor service Sunday for those who aren’t comfortable coming indoors yet. All indoor services will be broadcast online for those who feel more comfortable at home.
Meanwhile, the Camden Diocese has issued guidelines allowing Catholic churches to reopen starting this weekend, with a list of requirements.
According to the diocese’s website, those requirements include placing hand sanitizer at entrance doors; the removal of hymnals, missalettes and other materials usually left in pews; blocking off pews so parishioners remain 6 feet apart on all sides; placing tape on the floor to provide proper spacing if parishioners are standing in line; a team of volunteers to direct traffic and keep church attendees 6 feet apart; omission of the invitation to exchange a sign of peace; and a prohibition on holding hands during the Our Father prayer, unless among family members.
The Rev. Thomas Barcellona of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Galloway Township says his church has started working on the list.
“We started blocking off the pews and everything already,” Barcellona said.
Each of the three houses of worship’s leaders agrees that staying involved with their communities is essential, whether or not they choose to open their doors.
“To have (church members) be able to come back and receive Jesus in the Eucharist is important,” Barcellona said.
Lieberman said his congregation realizes the importance of staying in contact during stressful times, regardless of the decision to keep their doors closed.
“We know that our members are struggling like everyone else is, coping with both the physical and the mental side of it. That’s why we want to go out of our way to stay in touch,” Lieberman said. “We’ve been sending more email than we ever have been sending before, (having) Friday night Zoom services, for a while we were doing a Saturday evening service at the end of the Sabbath to let people know that the Sabbath is over, the week starts … just to give people the extra level of camaraderie that we know is so important.”
Sheptock, who recently attended a Black Lives Matter protest in Rio Grande, believes in being involved in the community and giving hope during a time of uncertainty, while working with local authorities.
“I don’t view these days as targeted persecution of the church because everyone is in this together,” Sheptock said. “Small businesses are hoping to survive, people hope to make it through this pandemic still in one piece. We minister as the church, and there are those times when the Body of Christ is at its best outside the building and not hiding safely within it.”