Pastor John Wyatt in Rainelle, Greenbrier County, had reopened his two small Baptist churches for three weeks when he got the news. The Graystone Baptist Church in Ronceverte, about 30 miles from Rainelle, had a COVID-19 outbreak.
On Monday, June 29, Gov. Jim Justice said that a Greenbrier County man who died over the weekend from COVID-19 was linked to the Graystone church. The county health department has reported more than 40 active cases.
Graystone Pastor Youel Altizer admitted to having a hard time enforcing the guidelines in an interview with the Beckley Register-Herald on Tuesday, July 16. Namely, Altizer said he didn’t mandate face masks.
Just like that, Wyatt says he’s back to offering outdoor services and pre-recorded sermons on Facebook.
“You just don’t know what to do,” Wyatt said. “I mean, this virus, it’s lurking out there. And I’m not being overly cautious, either.”
All over the state, various places of worship are debating – can they reopen safely with guidelines for social distancing and mask-wearing?
Or, are the stakes too high?
In Charleston, Rev. James Patterson from the Institute Church of the Nazarene says he hasn’t had an in-person Sunday service since March.
Patterson, who is Black, represents the faith community on a COVID-19 advisory commission created by the state for racial disparities, which was established after reports that Black West Virginians are disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
While only 3.6 percent of the state’s population was Black in 2018, more than 7 percent of the state’s positive cases of COVID-19 were found in Black residents on Monday, June 29.
“So as a pastor, one of my main concerns is that, why should I tempt fate and tempt faith, and expose people to a likely disease that could potentially kill them?” Patterson said.
In general, state health leaders like coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh advise people to avoid the “three C’s,” meaning closed spaces, constant contact with members outside one’s household and crowds.
“We love that people are coming together to celebrate and to give thanks in their own way, in their own church and denomination,” Marsh said during a virtual press briefing June 15. “[But] when you will be around other people, and when you will have trouble distancing, or you will be in crowds inside or outside, then we really, really encourage people to wear masks, [and] to try to stay that distance.”
Missed Holidays and Human Contact
Rev. Jeffrey Kanode pastors three churches in Alderson, Greenbrier County. Before the Graystone Baptist Church outbreak, Kanode held his first in-person event in three months.
He has returned to offering video services only.
“Certainly, we understood that we needed to take a step back, and there was no question among church leadership, that was something we needed to do,” Kanode said. “But, you know, it was emotionally devastating, I think, for some people to have been back together and then to have to return to virtual worship.”
David Johnston in Athens, Mercer County, pastors the Concord United Methodist Church. He has held all of his services online.
All of the things Johnston said he and church members miss – singing, fellowship, hanging out after service – are all things he would have to prohibit anyways, because they can hasten the spread of the coronavirus.
“At the end of the day, when you look at what we can't do and what we can do – I think what people are craving in getting back to church, we're not going to be able to do any of it anyway,” Johnston said.
COVID-19 has caused several religious communities to miss important holidays of their faith, including Ramadan and Easter.
For two synagogues in southern West Virginia, travel restrictions associated with COVID-19 might hinder the local Jewish community’s ability to observe the high holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in September.
Both the Temple Beth-El in Beckley and the Ahavath Sholom in Bluefield depend on visiting rabbis for these holidays.
“It would be disappointing, because we've conducted high holiday services at Temple Beth-El since as long as I can remember,” said President Tom Sopher. “And if it gets missed, I mean, yes, it is somewhat heartbreaking in one aspect, but, you know, it's a different situation right now.”
Through social media and video conferencing, both synagogues can tap into streamed services in Charleston. Co-president Doris Sue Kantor in Bluefield says she’s been able to stream pre-recorded services from Temple Israel in Charleston.
The Decision To Reopen Depends For Some
Normally, worshippers at the Islamic Association of West Virginia in South Charleston pray every Friday, standing shoulder to shoulder.
Since reopening after months of virtual services on June 5, vice president Ibtesam Sue Barazi says she and other mosque leaders have marked the floor with blue strips of tape, to ensure everyone who comes to pray does so standing six feet apart.
Friday prayer isn’t the same, Barazi said. Like several other places of worship, the mosque is prohibiting fellowship, like hand-shaking and hugs. Yet, she added it was an important step after three months of online prayer.
“It's always important to connect with other human beings, other people like you,” Barazi said. “We have an immigrant community here … [and] we have a large number of our community members, who are immigrants and don't have families here. So, we are each other's family.”
The South Charleston mosque has ordered all young children to stay home, and it’s asking anyone with a compromised immune system who might be more vulnerable to also stay home.
That includes Barazi, a cancer survivor. She said she stays home for her well-being, but also to set an example. Sometimes, she described feeling isolated.
“It's human nature to want to see each other and contact each other, even with social distancing,” she said.
West Virginia’s Catholic Diocese reopened its churches to the public on May 23, with the same guidelines for face masks and social distancing.
In Pocahontas County, Father Arthur Bufogle says most people are adhering to the standards. But for his small rural churches, it has been an adjustment.
“You know, in a big city in a church, a lot of times people really don't know each other,” Bufogle said. “Here, our experience is, normally at the end of mass, people just hang around. People bring food, and people chat. It can go on for half an hour.”
Pastor Tia Welch from the Heart of God Charleston resumed in-person services with the same face mask and social-distancing restrictions about three weeks ago.
Welch said it’s easy for some pastors to criticize others for reopening, but the right decision depends on the size of the church and its members.
“You have to use divine direction, guidance, and wisdom,” Welch said. “And you have to do what is best for your congregation.”
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.