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Honking for Jesus: Churches adapt, ponder reopening after lawsuit

On May 17, a typical sunny spring Sunday in this community of churches, congregants gathered for religious services all across Haywood County much as they’d done hundreds or thousands of times before. 

Choirs warmed up. Pianos tinkled in the background. Pastors shuffled papers and pamphlets at podiums, testing the microphones and speakers and projectors. Worshipers parked themselves in place and prepared for the sermon.

It wasn’t that different from a pre-pandemic service, but when the preacher belted out the classic interrogatory, “Can I get an amen?” he was answered — with no less enthusiasm, no less accord, no less faith — by the resounding honks of dozens of car horns. 

Beginning in March, churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship became subject to North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s “stay home” order banning indoor gatherings of 10 or more people. 

Since then, they’ve adapted in various ways, like the drive-up outdoor service recently held at the First Baptist Church of Maggie Valley that was broadcast over a short-range FM station to people in the parking lot. 

A recent court ruling now leaves many houses of worship free to reopen at limited capacity, but local religious leaders remain protective of their congregations while still entertaining thoughts of what a post-pandemic Sunday might look like. 

When Rev. Dr. Michael Horton first became pastor at Waynesville’s Encouraging Word Baptist Church six years ago, he probably never guessed he’d celebrate its ninth anniversary by holding worship in the parking lot. 

“I believe it was the middle of March when we first canceled services and moved online, and we just started drive-in services the first Sunday in May,” said Horton. “It was hard at first, and connecting online is good, but it’s not great. Since we began the drive-in services, people really seem to be enjoying it.”

But not everyone’s enjoying it. In fact, some have questioned the ban on mass gatherings as it specifically applies to churches, citing violations of the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

On May 14, four plaintiffs filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina alleging just that — Cooper’s series of executive orders “target constitutionally protected activity, significantly burdening Plaintiffs’ right to freedom of religion and assembly, establishing an orthodox form of religious exercise approved by the State, all the while providing broad exemptions for many other gatherings of more than 10 people that are not constitutionally protected.”

Judge James C. Dever agreed and issued a temporary restraining order on Saturday, May 16, enjoining law enforcement from taking enforcement action against worshippers. 

Although Dever’s order doesn’t appear to set limits on the number of people that can attend services, it does suggest that people gathering to worship “should observe recommendations to promote social distancing and reduce transmissions to the extent possible.”

Dever also scheduled a hearing for May 29 to consider making the temporary order permanent. A Cooper spokesperson told Raleigh’s News & Observer that while Cooper didn’t agree with the May 16 order, he wouldn’t appeal it. 

“We only heard about it this morning,” Horton said just before Encouraging Word’s May 17 service. “We’ve been thinking through it for several weeks and we do plan on reopening probably the first Sunday in June.”

For Horton, reopening still means putting restrictions in place, including rigorous sanitizing, socially-distanced seating and perhaps even a separate room where at-risk populations can isolate themselves while watching the service on a video screen.

“We’re taking care of each other because that’s more important at the moment than moving inside the building,” he said. “We’re looking out for each other, looking out for our community. That’s where our focus is.”

Rev. Chris Westmoreland, lead pastor at Long’s Chapel United Methodist Church, is focusing on many of the same things Horton is, but in a multi-layered organization with a congregation 10 times the size of Horton’s. 

“For us, it’s not just a matter of ‘can we?’ it’s a matter of ‘should we?’” Westmoreland said. “We take very seriously the responsibility of caretaking people’s health when they’re in our space and trying to do everything we can to reduce the rates of infection.”

Westmoreland’s concern is well placed; by their very nature, religious gatherings can be fantastic environments in which to spread the coronavirus due to the enclosed nature of most churches and the elderly populations that tend to frequent them. 

In March, the funerals for two Albany, Georgia, men resulted in more than 200 cases among mourners, immediately overwhelming the 14-bed capacity of the local ICU and on Mother’s Day, a Californian who attended worship service with 180 other people found out the next day that they’d tested positive for the virus. 

By comparison, Haywood County had only seen 28 cases as of press time, and 16 of those had recovered, meaning in a county of 60,000 people, there remain only 12 active confirmed cases. However, of those 60,000, only 544 have tested for the virus. A mass spreading incident like those in Georgia and California would have a cascade effect on medical resources not only across the county, but also across the region. 

Like Encouraging Word, Long’s Chapel hasn’t held in-person, indoor services for its roughly 800 congregants for some time now. They’ve also stayed away from the drive-in concept due to parking constraints and ongoing construction.

They have, however, continued operating the child enrichment center, which ministers to children of essential workers in accordance with federal, state and local mandates. 

 

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Chris Westmoreland, lead pastor at Long’s Chapel, delivers a message via Facebook on May 17. Cory Vaillancourt photo

 

“The other layer for us is that obviously we’re United Methodist, which means we’re a part of a global connection and denomination,” said Westmoreland. “Our bishop has strongly advised that at the very least through the month of May that we not have in-person worship experiences to try to protect the health and safety of our folks.”

Westmoreland said he was planning to present a roadmap to reopening, and that it could include phasing in small groups of worshippers, designating separate in-and-out doors to the campus and/or issuing worshipers hundreds of cloth masks that are currently being made by church volunteers. 

“Our first responsibility to our people is to do no harm,” he said. “So the best way that we can honor that in this season is to be socially distant, but spiritually close.”

One way Long’s has been able to accomplish that is with professional-level video production and digital distribution. 

“The seeds that had been planted years earlier in the life of our church related to digital connection and community are absolutely reaping the harvest in this season,” Westmoreland said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

For years, the philosophy at Long’s has been to treat the online audience as the “second balcony” of the sanctuary itself, especially since a good percentage of church members don’t reside in Haywood County on a full-time basis. 

“They’ve been able to kind of stay connected to our community that way,” said Westmoreland. “Where it used to be kind of an extra, obviously now it’s been essential. It’s a front row seat.” 

A front row seat perhaps, but for some, that seat still isn’t close enough.

“It’s been discouraging for a lot of folks,” said Rev. James Markey, minister of music at Canton’s First Baptist Church. “Especially our older congregants. This is their church family, so being able to meet once or twice a week in the building has kind of been their connection to the world outside of their own little circle. As far as the way they’ve been responding to it, I think everybody understands that getting together is not worth the risk with what we don’t know about this.”

Markey said that church leadership has discussed the topic of reopening, but in speaking for himself, he personally doesn’t feel inclined to rush back to the pews.

“When we do look to starting to meet again in the building, it will not just be ripping the band aid off or turning the faucet right back on. It will be sort of a tiered approach,” he said. “It seems to me just as a person that if we’re really following the teachings of Jesus, we’re supposed to be protecting those who are the most vulnerable among us.”

 

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Although aware of the court ruling, area churches are in no rush to reopen. Cory Vaillancourt photo

 

Despite suppositions to the contrary, all three reverends — Westmoreland, Markey and Horton — say that the need for revenue isn’t a factor in how their respective institutions will approach reopening. 

“We’ve been very blessed,” Horton said. “People here have been very faithful. God’s been very good and so we’re actually able to help others. We’ve been able to give during this time, which has been very nice, and we’re blessed for it.”

Markey said he wasn’t aware of any serious budget crunch at First Baptist, and Westmoreland pegged Long’s decrease in revenue in the ballpark of about 10 percent. 

Meanwhile, several local businesses told The Smoky Mountain News last week that yearly revenues were down by 50 to 75 percent, if not more. 

“Obviously we’re doing what every other small business is doing,” Westmoreland said. “We’re trying to adapt our expenses to reflect the income, but our folks have been incredibly generous and gracious, and I feel very grateful for that. I also realize that a lot of our congregation is being financially impacted, so obviously as they draw in less, they have a different capacity in what they’re able to give.”

As to the importance of opening up the buildings themselves for worship, Long’s is banking on a multi-million-dollar campus expansion predicated on the desire of worshippers and the larger community to congregate, even though Westmoreland appreciates the opportunities for engagement with faith that a strong digital presence provides. Markey sees things just a little differently. 

“Anybody that would question what the church needs to be about needs to know that all Christians have a manual and we all are supposed to refer back to that,” he said. “There isn’t anything in the Bible that says if you’re not there at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning, then you’re not my people. I mean, Jesus stood on the mountain and told people to go out and love everybody. We can do that right now.”

Horton takes a historical view of the need for physical congregation, and offered up a more precise definition of what, exactly, he thinks a church is supposed to be. 

“With early Christians, the building wasn’t important at all, but we’ve gotten used to it. To me, I’ve kind of been excited to have some new challenges and to think literally outside the box that is this building in finding new ways to minister. In a way, it’s been a blessing in disguise,” he said. “The church can’t be a building. It has to be the people.”

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