Gov. Charlie Baker earlier this month revealed the state’s re-opening plan, which included a rough timeline along which organizations in various sectors might re-open. Up first were places of worship (up to 40% occupancy), which got the OK to welcome the faithful back beginning May 18. Natick’s religions houses, however, have been in no rush to re-fill those pews. They’re all still praying on it.
Despite the new guidelines, religious organizations in town are taking a cautious approach under advisement of each of their own committees as they study the situation carefully. Services and masses, which have been online for weeks now, will continue in that vein, while baptisms, weddings, and funerals will be managed on a case-by-case basis.
Temple Israel‘s Rabbi Daniel Lieben says, “Our plan is to re-open over time and with caution. Our primary concern is the safety of our community. The bulk of what we are doing will remain remote.”
The rabbi, like many religious leaders in Natick, says he’s been pleasantly surprised with the success he and his team have had in creating connectivity over Zoom meetings. “We’ve even had a bar mitzvah, and we were able to create a true experience.”
Still, he acknowledges the sense of loss that has come with the enforced separation. “People gather together in synagogue to pray as a community. It’s very important to be together, and the sense of loss runs deep. But people are coming together online because it is a way to connect.”
Milestone Church‘s Pastor Jay Mudd agrees that now is not the time to take COVID-related health concerns lightly. “We’re huggers at Milestone,” he says. “That’s just not going to work right now.”
Mudd notes that when services do resume, worship will look different than before. According to the Milestone website, “We will have to limit interaction and worship with only a handful of people in the room. Your overall worship experience will be much different than you expect.”
Day by day
Most church and synagogue offices are not staffed right at this time. A pastor or rabbi might stop in briefly to record a section of the upcoming online worship service. A bare-bones cleaning crew does the rounds of chores quickly and at a distance from one another. Phone calls either go to voicemail or are picked up by a staff member working from home.
When the buildings do re-open, expect to see masks on clergy and worshippers; plenty of sanitation supplies available from hand sanitizer to bleach wipes; and even plexiglass shields in some offices to protect staff as they interact with the public. All scenarios are currently up for discussion including traffic patterns throughout the spaces and a dismissal system that could look less like a meandering flock headed out in to the world and more like a military operation.
It seems likely that most sanctuaries will remain closed until fall, which could be the most sensible course given that attendance at Natick churches and synagogues already trends downward during the summer months. The closest to opening may be St. Patrick and St. Linus Churches. Weekly mass attendance is a precept of the Catholic Church, although dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation has been granted to the faithful for now. Church leadership at this time is working out a plan for resuming worship that will likely include a pre-registration process for a seat at mass and volunteer cleaning teams to take on the necessary sanitizing tasks.
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot at Eliot Church (no relation to John Eliot, the missionary leader who founded the church in 1651) says, “We’re not going back until September at the earliest. What we do as a congregation is care for our members, so coming back and gathering isn’t a good idea right now.”
Tierney-Eliot said although he knows it’s hard for people to remain apart, it’s necessary because “we love them and care about them. It’s like an extended snowstorm, in a way. We stay closed so that people will stay home. We stay closed for now to keep the community as a whole safe.”
The commandment has been delivered loud and clear: Love they neighbor as thyself — but do so at a distance.