Despite Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement last week that the state would ease restrictions on religious gatherings, several prominent Vashon churches won’t be holding in-person services anytime soon.
The new rules allow churches in counties in Phase 1 of Washington’s “Safe Start” re-opening plan to hold outdoor services for up to 100 people, excluding religious staff, on church property. Houses of worship in counties in Phase 2 of the plan are permitted to have indoor services restricted to 25 percent of building capacity or 50 people, whichever is less. For both indoor and outdoor services, it is required that all participants wear face coverings during services and adhere to a long list of other safety requirements.
Still, multiple faith leaders on Vashon said they will continue to hold online services for the foreseeable future, instead of asking their flocks to come back to worship collectively.
“We are not going to meet anytime soon,” said Leigh Weber, pastor of the Vashon Presbyterian Church. “Jesus cared about the community, and we’re supposed to care about the community. Gathering puts the community at risk.”
Paul Mitchell, the minister of Vashon United Methodist Church, concurred, saying his church would follow the broader governance of the Methodist Church hierarchy in terms of allowing in-person services.
“We are working with our basic values as a denomination: Do good. Do no harm. Stay in love with God and neighbor,” Mitchell said. “We believe that even physically distanced outdoor worship at this time would introduce unnecessary harm.”
Mitchell said that his church’s members — like many other congregations on Vashon — have gathered online for services and meetings throughout the pandemic.
“We really resist the idea that we have been shut down or closed,” he said. “The buildings have been closed and restricted in their use, but our faith community doesn’t close, we just adjust.”
For now, Vashon’s Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit will also continue to hold services online. Sarah Colvin, the rector of the Church of the Holy Spirit, said that her church would not open until Phase 3 or 4 of the plan.
And St. John Vianney Catholic Church is continuing to stay the course with online Masses.
“We aren’t opening yet, because when we do that, we are going to do it right and in line with the Archdiocese, the governor and in meeting the needs of our parishioners and doing that safely,” said Maria Pottinger, the administrator of St. John Vianney.
The church, led by its priest, David Mayovsky, pivoted quickly to move services online in response to the pandemic, Pottinger said.
The doors to the church remain open, Pottinger said, for parishioners to practice private prayer with social distancing, and appointments can also be made to meet privately with the priest. Ample hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes are being provided for those who come to the church, but Pottinger also said that visitors to the building had been few and far between.
In the past weeks and months, she said, the church’s chapter of the St. Vincent DePaul Society has been active in its charitable work, assisting an increasing number of islanders in need during the past months. Another church effort, The Backpack Pantry, a food distribution program that provides nutritious meals for school-aged children on weekends, has also continued apace throughout the pandemic.
Mike Ivaska, the pastor of Vashon Island Community Church (VICC), said his church, too, has established a robust online presence, with Facebook Live church services held on Sundays and prayer meetings taking place on Zoom. The deacons of his church, as well, have regularly checked in by phone with members of the church. Other church members, Ivaska said, had joined him in volunteering to help out at Vashon Food Bank.
Ivaska said the church did not plan to re-open for in-person services inside the church in the near term, in deference to both the broader community and instructions from the leadership of his denomination.
“The leadership in our network has advised Assembly of God churches not to be the first to reopen in their communities,” he said.
The church will also not hold outdoor services because, Ivaska said, their camera equipment cannot be placed outside — a factor that would eliminate online attendance for those who still wanted to attend that way.
He said that even after in-person church resumes, VICC will also continue to live-stream services.
“We’re planning to be on Facebook Live forever now,” Ivasaka said, adding that the online services had attracted community members who hadn’t been members of the church — including two people who have now requested baptism.
Bethel Church, on Vashon, has spacious grounds, but Luke Tedder, lead pastor of the church, said that his church would also not hold in-person services in June. The decision about whether or not to have in-person services would be revisited on a month-to-month basis, he added.
“We want to do what is best for our church community and our island community,” Tedder said, adding that he too has received recommendations from his district of churches, The Evangelical Free Churches of America, to “be as safe as possible to protect the vulnerable and those most at risk.”
With an array of online options including services on Facebook Live and small meetings on Zoom, he said he has noticed his community grow more intentional and caring of each other.
“You realize how important people — absence makes the heart grow fonder,” he said. “I notice phone calls and text threads going a little longer. I see an increased value in others.”
Tedder said that he had surveyed his congregation, and received a mixed response to when people would be willing to come back to in-person services.
“Some people who are really lonely want to come back right now, and some want to wait for a vaccine,” he said. “Most people, if they did come back, would want to see safety measures in place.”
The branch president of Vashon’s Church of the Latter Day Saints — the island’s second-largest congregation, after St. John Vianney Church — did not return a phone call from The Beachcomber. But based on guidelines posted by the leadership of the church, in Salt Lake City, it seems unlikely that Vashon’s branch will re-open for large in-person gatherings any time soon. LDS temples around the world are re-opening in phases, with Seattle’s temple slated to remain closed for all rites as of June 1.
Leaders of two other island faith communities mentioned that they were considering plans to gather their members in-person this summer and fall.
The Vashon Havurah’s president, Suzanne Greenberg, said that her community did plan to have occasional outdoor gatherings, but not until later in the summer.
Robbie Rohr, president of the Vashon Island Unitarian Fellowship, described similar plans.
“We will definitely be considering some outdoor small group outdoor activities for mid and late summer,” Rohr said. “We will be taking a break from our Sunday zoom services during that period, most likely offering a midweek zoom coffee hour. For the fall, if Vashon remains conscientious about social distancing, we will look at possibly continuing zoom services with an option for a small # of people to gather for them at Lewis Hall, behind the Burton Church, where we meet.”
Throughout the pandemic, the issue of re-opening churches has become a touchstone of the political divide in the United States, with President Trump suggesting in mid-May that he would order states to re-open churches, despite critics and legal scholars saying he had no power to do so.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected, on a 5-4 vote, a challenge to California’s re-opening orders that mandated a cap on 100 attendees or 25 percent of its capacity, whichever is lower, in its houses of worship.
In writing his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the state had imposed similar limitations on “comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time.”
There have been numerous national and international news reports of churches being sites of COVID-19 “super-spreader” events.
One of the first such events took place on March 10, in Mount Vernon, Washington, at a practice for the Skagit Valley Chorale, held at the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church. One of the choir members had COVID-19 and infected 52 other singers with the new coronavirus. Two of those infected later died.
According to a report on the incident made by Skagit County Public Health, “transmission was likely facilitated by close proximity (within 6 feet) during practice and augmented by the act of singing.”
A church revival in Kentucky, held in mid-March in defiance of that state’s governor’s request that churches not hold services, also sickened dozens of people and spread the coronavirus into the surrounding community. The same thing happened in South Korea in February, after a woman spread the coronavirus to 37 other members of her congregation.
Inslee’s new requirements for churches in Washington’s Phase 1 and Phase 2 counties do not permit choirs, though they do allow singing by the congregation, as long as all singers remain masked.
Mitchell, of Vashon’s Methodist Church, said the governor’s long list of safety regulations for services contain a message.
“If we are discerning and intelligent, we can understand that all the requirements tell us it’s really not safe to gather yet,” he said.
Still, he said, the work of churches on Vashon will go on.
“It is difficult because we have traditions, practices, rites and rituals and many people are grieving the suspension of that,” he said. “People are grieving the loss of singing together — it’s going to be a long time until we can do that again. But it’s also an opportunity to consider the core practices of what we are trying to accomplish, and [whether we can learn] new and better ways of doing that.”