March 12, 2020, was a day Rev. Rhett Payne will never forget.
As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the country, then to Mississippi, he was worried about his congregation at First Presbyterian Church in Meridian.
“I've been a pastor for 35 years," Payne said. "And I’ve never heard or faced anything like this that would lead to a cancellation of worship.”
In March, when Gov. Tate Reeves urged houses of worship not to gather, many moved to online services to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Payne likened the services to watching a football game with no fans.
“It’s really hard to have the kind of energy that goes with worship with a crowd, but to duplicate that with no one in the sanctuary, is really challenging,” Payne said. “On the other hand, I have had people tell me they are worshipping with us online even though that are not members of our church.
“The live stream is something we did in response to a crisis and now we are going to continue the live stream regardless.”
Like Payne, other church leaders around Meridian have continued to adjust their religious practices as they seek to maintain a connection with their congregations while establishing new practices to maintain their faith and protect their safety during a pandemic.
The Rev. A. Austin McGehee, rector with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Meridian, said when the church closed March 15, he thought it would be for only a couple of months, so they started doing everything remotely.
“For us, I will say that we had to play catch up with the live streaming because a lot of our neighboring churches already had a lot of the technology and resources where they were able to just plug things in,” McGehee said. “Putting our worship on camera doesn’t really do it justice.
“We have a wonderful worship space. When people walk in, it draws back to the saints before us and other generations of the church. It feels very before electricity even. It’s just a worship of the senses that doing it over the computer has made it tough.”
The Rev. Augustine Palimattam, pastor of the Meridian Catholic Community, which includes St. Joseph and St. Patrick parishes, said during the stay-at-home order the church celebrated Mass online and on television, and even reached out to parishioners and families by phone.
“Our counselors called every family by phone to reach out to them to see if they needed any help,” he said. “We also had different volunteers to help someone if they needed help to get groceries, or whatever the need.”
The church also started an online prayer group, which has continued Monday through Friday at 3 p.m.
“I feel like God is using this opportunity to use every communication skill we can use to stay connected,” Palimattam said. “I feel like God is using it for the glory of God.”
The new Catholic churches have returned to celebrating Mass on site, with limited seating, space between worshipers and specific patters for entering and exiting the churches.
Close to normal
In May, Reeves released guidelines for churches and pastors to safely resume in-person services. The governor said it is was up to faith leaders to decide when they would resume regular services.
Randall Sims, pastor of GracePointe Community Church in Meridian said the church is close to normal again.
“We definitely went through several months where we only did online services, even with those a lot of people watched,” Sims said. “We haven’t resumed our midweek services yet because we have food there and that is a bit sketchy now. We also haven’t resumed children’s church or the nursery but resumed senior citizens and young adult classes.
“We are having our Sunday morning services and they are going well. We have masks and hand sanitizers available and it is up to each individual whether they use them and social distance. Some are shaking hands and some are not. Personally, I am OK with it, because I have a strong immune system. There are some who attend who are not comfortable with that yet and that is fine.”
First Presbyterian reopened its doors on June 14 with safeguards in place, such as a limiting capacity to 50 percent. On Sunday, Sept. 27, there were 150 people who attended church with the maximum being 200 to keep below the 50 percent, Payne said.
“Our deacons are actually asking people to move if they sit in the wrong place,” Payne said. “We have pews marked off where you can sit to keep the 6-foot distance to practice social distancing. We are masking on the way in and out of the building, during confessional times, and singing with masks on.
“We give people the option of removing their masks during the sermon. Some keep theirs on the whole service and some don’t.”
McGehee said reopening has been a challenge for his congregation.
“When we shut down, it was hard emotionally, but it’s proven to be even harder to open things back up – we are treating it like a dimmer light, not a light switch,” McGehee said. “The bishop has expanded our capacity to 50 percent and for us, that is around 125 people on a Sunday. We have been open for a month now and we have had about 60 people on Sunday. We have a good bit of people who have been on the fringes who are giving the church another look who are watching the live streaming. But, we still have a lot of people who are very vulnerable.
It may be a while before church attendance is back at full strength, McGehee said.
“We are not having a choir right now, but we started the music again,” McGehee said. “You crack a door and put the words of a hymn on a page and people are going to sing it whether they have a mask on or not. So, that is what we have been doing and adding things as we go. We just cross our fingers and turn things on. It’s like a dimmer switch, not a light switch.”
"As a pastor, the most taxing part of the pandemic has been not being able to have communion," McGehee said.
“No matter what happens we have always been able to come back to the table and come back to communion – that’s how we regroup,” McGehee said. “We believe so strongly in what we are doing at God’s table that I have never wanted to do a drive-by communion or anything like that.”
But the most rewarding and powerful moment for him each week is when he is able to look his flock in the eyes and give them the bread, McGehee said.
“That might be just five seconds of pastoral care where I can look in their eyes, to have that connection,” he said. “For months we haven’t had that and it has been so hard to check-in. That’s my favorite part of being a priest and also the hardest thing to do whenever the day comes and you have to say goodbye to everybody."
“It has been taxing on me, as I know it has with other pastors. I wouldn’t call myself an extrovert, because I still recharge my battery in quiet, but it has been hard, yes very hard.”
As for the economic impact of the pandemic, there hasn’t been much of a dip in First Presbyterian's finances, Payne said.
“A lot of people have a strong loyalty to this church and as a result that have continued to give,” Payne said. “We have had people driving by here on Sunday dropping off their offerings, even if they didn’t attend service. When we weren’t allowed to have church people were bringing their offerings and shoving them in the door. We also have a way to give online, so we really didn’t see a downturn in giving.”
McGehee said the finances at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church haven't been affected as of yet, but they could see a difference in the new year.
“I hear a lot of the experts say that it won’t be the same again, and you wonder what 2021 will hold,” Payne said. “I think right now we have people who are nervous still, at high risk who are staying home because of that, and I completely understand. The approach I am taking is I’m 66 years old and not a young man anymore. I don’t fear the virus, but I respect the virus.
Payne said he doesn’t know what changes COVID-19 will have on the church long term or the church of Jesus Christ long term.
“I think a lot of people miss the community,” Payne said. “You can watch church at home, but it is not the same. A lot of our people come back because they know it is not the same. They need the fellowship and support that comes with face to face contact. Even though we can’t hug each other and all that, we are doing everything we can to re-establish ourselves as the church and be creative about it. Everything is already laid out for them. You pick up your own bulletin, mask and hand sanitizer.
“On Sunday we are having communion and we are doing that with disposable communion cups that have the bread and juice together. We also have little baggies so you can throw your elements away. We are doing a lot of creative things about being wise about cleanliness and safety.”
McGehee said that with no end of the pandemic in sight, an ongoing challenge is to continue to trust each other and allow each other grace, whether professionally or in our personal lives.
“How do we live together no matter what happens when the dust clears?” McGehee asks. “In our tradition, we use a prayer book – The Book of Common Prayer. What I have always loved about this book? That it’s not a book of commonality, but we can pray together.
“That’s going to keep making the church relevant in these times of when everything feels uprooted and different.”