Parking lots and baseball fields have become places of worship as local churches move services outdoors, providing at least some measure of personal connections to congregations that have been meeting virtually for months.
Last Sunday, members of St. Christopher's Episcopal Church met in-person for the first time since the pandemic shutdown. About 110 members of the church participated in a socially distant outdoor service at Veterans Field.
“It went really well,” said Rev. Brian McGurk. “It had been a long time. I've gotten a lot of emails with a very positive reaction. It meant a lot for people to see each other and be out instead of on Zoom.”
Sunday was the second time the First United Methodist Church of Chatham held services in the parking lot of the church at the corner of Main and Cross streets.
“We're kind of taking it one week at a time,” said Rev. Tom Gallen, the church's newly appointed pastor. “We're trying to do the best we can under the circumstances. Like everybody, it's one day at a time.”
Other area churches, including Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Chatham and St. Peter's Episcopal Church in East Harwich, have held drive-in style services in recent weeks.
Places of worship are subject to a limit of 50 percent of a church's permitted occupancy, or no more than 25 people if there is no permitted occupancy limit. Churches are required to block off fixed seating to ensure social distancing and are encouraged to indicate six-foot separations with tape or other markers. Traffic must be one-way. Other safety protocols must also be followed for indoor services, including mandatory face coverings; anyone who refuses to wear a mask can be barred from entry. The state's current recommended best practices encourages places of worship to conduct services outdoors or virtually.
Most local churches continue to provide members with virtual services that are either recorded and available online or conducted through Zoom or another virtual meeting platform. Some, such as Holy Trinity Church in Harwich, are open for in-person services inside the church subject to state and dioceses restrictions. Redemption Rock Church in South Chatham is also holding indoor services with reduced occupancy and taped off and modified seating to maintain social distancing, according to Pastor Mike Pratt. Masks are required and handwashing and sanitizing stations are located throughout the building.
Others churches are either remaining with virtual services for the time being or taking advantage of the weather and moving worship outdoors.
Even during outdoor services, masks are required and family groups must remain six feet from others. About 40 to 50 people attended the Chatham Methodist Church service this past Sunday, and masks as well as hand sanitizing stations were available, said Gallen. At St. Christopher's service at Veterans Field, seats were spaced out and the congregation did not sing, said McGurk. Hosts were given out in bags rather than being passed out at communion.
Attendance at Veterans Field was larger than anticipated, McGurk said, but the venue was chosen because of its size and the availability of parking. It was suggested after a successful town meeting was held at the field in June.
“We felt it was big enough and there was adequate parking, and we could spread out,” he said. “For safety reasons, it felt good.” Since the church closed March 10, McGurk has been recording services, and that will continue with occasional outdoor worship, he said. Church officials are gauging when indoor services can begin, and are also looking at investing in more sophisticated video equipment so services can be live streamed. He expects that to continue even when in-church services resume.
“We're trying to be very safe and slow,” he said.
Gallen said he hopes to be holding services back in the church in August. The sanctuary has been professionally cleaned and sections have been marked and roped off to ensure distancing.
Returning to in-person services has been good for congregants, he said, many of whom have been church members for years.
“They're really glad to see each other, mask to mask, so to speak,” he said, adding that the shutdown was a struggle for many, especially those who could not visit loved ones. Sunday's service ended with “virtual hugs,” he said.
This has also been a return for Gallen, who was pastor at the church from 1990 to 2001. Although retired, he was asked by Bishop Sudarshana Davadhar to become pastor again after Rev. Sooyoun Kim was named to serve as the Wesley United Methodist Church in Hadley. Gallen previously served as a church in Brockton, which he said was hard-hit by the virus.