Keeping Covid Out of the Sanctuary

By  Stephanie Claytor, Florida Courier (Source: vaccination events to requiring masks, Florida pastors share how their churches are coping with the virus.

The news of Impact Church in Jacksonville losing six members to COVID-19 made national headlines and spread throughout the faith community, causing many to further encourage their members to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Impact Senior Pastor George Davis told Jacksonville TV station WJXT that the members died within a two-week span beginning in late July and four of the members were younger than 35 years old.

He told the news station that all of the members were healthy and the only thing they had in common was they were unvaccinated. The deaths led Davis to host a Sunday vaccination clinic at his church and other churches like Wayman Temple AME Church, also in Jacksonville, followed suit.

“It shows us that young adults can die of COVID. Young adults who may not have had any pre-existing conditions,” the Rev. Mark Griffin, senior pastor of Wayman Temple AME Church, told the Florida Courier.

Reaching young adults

During Wayman Temple’s vaccination event, the church gave out $25 gift cards to people 25 and under who got vaccinated.

“At that time, there was a lot in the media about young adults feeling that they didn’t need to be vaccinated. That they were invincible. Part of the idea was just to get the conversation going about the importance of those who are young adults to get vaccinated,” Griffin explained.

A thunderstorm may have led to a turnout of 30 people but Griffin said they hope to have another event or partner with another church to have another one.

“We didn’t get the numbers that we thought, but I was encouraged by seeing mothers and fathers bringing their children out to be vaccinated,” Griffin said.

An honor system

Wayman started drive-up services last October and began in-person services in June at one of its campuses, requiring masks and requesting that only vaccinated members attend. There’s an exception for children under 12 who are currently ineligible to get the vaccine.

“We’ve not asked people to show proof of vaccination, but we have just been operating on an honor system. So those persons who have not been vaccinated for whatever reason, we’ve asked them to not be in the sanctuary,” Griffin explained.

“People have been fairly compliant with that. We’ve had some people that have gone out and gotten vaccinated because of that. We’ve had a number of other people who’ve chosen to worship virtually .”

He has cut capacity to 250, even though 1,500 can fit inside his church.

Griffin said he has not had COVID-19 and his entire family except for his young grandchildren are vaccinated. His church lost one member to COVID-19, but he believes the man, who wasn’t vaccinated, caught it outside of the church due to him not attending services at the time.

Griffin said he’s aware of three or four members who have been hospitalized with COVID-19, but he said there’s no indication they got COVID-19 because of attending church.

‘More urgent than ever’

The Rev. Dr. Glenn Dames, Jr., senior pastor at Allen Temple A.M.E. Church in Tampa, said masks are also required during his in-person services, which his congregation restarted back in June.

“We have been blessed. We have no COVID deaths in our church. Almost all of our members have been vaccinated,” Dames told the Courier.

Dames said the Tampa church has hosted several vaccine clinics at the church.

“The coronavirus pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on Black families. The church’s role in health care has become more urgent than ever,” Dames said.

Dealing with funerals

Funerals also have been a challenge. While Griffin said his church didn’t allow funerals in the Jacksonville church until May, Dr. Jomo Cousins of Love First Christian Center in River-view said they have been a mainstay at his church located in Hillsborough County.

“We’ve done more funerals in this season than we’ve ever done before,” said Cousins. “Many churches in our area would not do funerals in their buildings. We had the space, so we opened our doors and allowed many of these churches to perform funerals in our building.”

Cousins said, “By God’s grace, he has spared our church.” He doesn’t believe his church has had any COVID-19 outbreaks. Masks are required during his church’s two in-person services, which have been ongoing since March.

“We get routine visits from a sanitizing company. They spray our church down with a solution that viruses and germs cannot survive in. We have changed our air conditioning system, so now all potential airborne germs are killed,” Cousins explained.

Cousins said he and his family have been vaccinated and it’s personal to him, as he almost lost his father-in-law to the virus.

The Rev. Dr. Glenn Dames, senior pastor at Allen Temple A.M.E. Church in Tampa, said the church has hosted several vaccination clinics.

Global reach

The pandemic has forced churches to adapt to the 21st century and provide services on- line through social media and their websites.

Bishop C.E. Glover with Mount Bethel Ministries in Fort Lauderdale acknowledges that it hasn’t been easy, especially when in- person services were canceled.

“It was difficult preaching to a camera and a few media team members for a year. If this pandemic has done anything, it has shown that we, “The Black Church,” cannot do church as usual. We must use every platform available to us to reach people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Glover said.

Griffin agrees with Glover and says one of the benefits of virtual services is they can reach people around the world. He believes there will be many who will never return to regularly attending in-person church services again.

“I tell my members whatever floats your boat. If you want to come back into the sanctuary, that’s fine. If you want to continue to worship virtually, that’s fine. You’re no less of a member. You’re not any less holy. You’re not condemned to hell because you won’t step foot back into the sanctuary,” Griffin said.

“As pastors, that’s where we have to go. We can’t guilt trip people into coming back into the sanctuary. We must provide the best worship opportunities we can both virtually and in person.”

Through it all, all but one of these pastors said online giving has remained steady and they haven’t had financial issues.

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