As churches reopen in Southern Colorado, at-risk congregations balance fear, faith and live streaming

Closed due to COVID-19 signs were taped to the doors of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Pueblo, Colo in March, 2020 (PULP)

Colorado public health officials released new guidance that allows for the reopening of houses of worship at capacities of 50% or 50 people, whichever comes first. Now, faith leaders around Southern Colorado are trying to answer this question: how do you practice your faith but still protect your community from COVID-19?

Houses of worship previously suspended public services under a March 13th executive order by Governor Jared Polis banning large gatherings. Churches in Colorado can now allow larger gatherings of people, but must adhere to social distancing rules and COVID-19 prevention measures.

For many, the relaxing of restrictions could not have come any sooner.

Gaylene Chavez, a member of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Aguilar, Colorado—the old mining town—hopes church services will return to normal but thinks that getting the congregation back will be a challenge.

“Even if we had 50 people [in attendance]—and I think that’s what our goal is, to get to 50—it’s going to be a while before we get back to that, because I think there’s a comfort zone of watching it on TV, and there’s channels that are really really good,” she said, laughing. “But you know, you can’t receive the Eucharist on TV.”

Father Michael Chrisman, the director of liturgy and worship for the Diocese of Pueblo, agrees that worshiping at home doesn’t fully connect parishioners with God and each other.

“People feel that disconnection, not only to the action of worship, but from one another,” Chrisman said. “But at the same time, we have to keep in mind the health and safety of especially our most vulnerable population.”

The concern for houses of worship is how they stay safe but honor the sacred traditions and highly communal nature of a service, all without disrupting worship.

At St. Anthony of Padua a noticeable absence has been left by the removal of holy water fonts and offerings of consecrated wine. According to Gaylene Chavez, both had been “taken away from them” as one part of the social distancing guidelines her church must now employ.

Other faiths have also seen their community grieve over not attending services due to the pandemic.

Pastor Yevette Christy, an elder of Community United Methodist Church in Westcliffe, Colorado, says that her community has been deeply affected by the inability to gather.

“For many of my people, and especially since we’re in such a rural community, church is part of the communal lifeline,” said Christy. “So to not be able to attend services and see everyone there has caused a measure of grief.”

But the grief has been turned into a positive in Westcliffe. Christy notes that separation has also created a deeper sense of community among her congregation. She and some of her members have routinely sent cards, made phone calls and delivered groceries to other members of the church since public services were suspended.

“While we did have this sense of grief in not being able to be together,” Christy said, “being apart has also opened us up to serve one another and to be present for one another in deeper ways that were not necessarily required when we could gather.”

Christy says she and two of her members began personally live-streaming church services for their congregation on March 15th, and that she even holds “fellowship times” after the Sunday services during which the community can enjoy virtual social gatherings.

For other houses of worship, congregations have a lingering unease about when it’s safe to return to worship.

Kanel Elwazeir, the president of the Islamic Society of Colorado Springs, says the recent guidance has caused a slight split between worshippers eager to return to congregational prayers and those that were still leery of public gatherings.

“There are some that are very, very anxious to go back,” said Elwazeir, “but there’s also a segment of the community that’s cautious, and still not comfortable with being in a room with a lot of people.”

Elwazeir has put in place enhanced safety precautions that include standard procedures, like maintaining six feet of distance between worshippers. The ISCS is also leaving doors open during services to reduce contact and requesting pre-registration before attendance. Nevertheless, Elwazeir noted that some members had remained at home despite registering for prayer services.

Social distancing procedures for houses of worship from the CDPHE are broken into three categories: required guidelines, strongly recommended guidelines, and “other areas of consideration.” This allows for individual institutions to make some of their own procedural decisions, according to the needs, risk and space of their communities. However, certain core guidelines, which include requirements for six feet of physical distance between individuals of separate households, cleaning procedures and capacity limitations, are required of all reopening houses of worship.

Faith leaders have been both eager and cautious in lifting their suspensions of public masses, balancing health and safety concerns against disconnection within their communities.

“It is a step forward in transitioning,” said Father Chrisman, “but at the same time we have to remain aware of things like washing our hands, sanitizing our worship space and interacting with one another, all while bringing the joy of Christ.”

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