Churches celebrate rebirth as restrictions ease

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One by one, masked congregants walked up to a small altar at the United Church of the San Juans, weaving carefully between sets of chairs arranged 6 feet apart. They each selected a plate holding a Communion wafer and a tiny plastic cup of wine, then returned to their assigned seats.

That will be the new normal at the church as it resumes public services this weekend for the first time in more than three months, under strict guidelines from the state limiting occupancy, spacing and contact.

Worship services can be held with no more than 5o people, or half of a church’s capacity’, whichever is smaller. Attendees must maintain social distancing, and are “strongly encouraged,” though not required, to wear masks. Pastors, priests or anyone addressing a congregation should remain even farther away to limit possible spread of the coronavirus, and while solo or small-group singing is allowed, churches are urged not to allow choirs to resume yet.

UCSJ Pastor Pam Stofferahn led her first in-person service since March on Sunday for a small group of church council and worship team members, as a test run for the new protocols before welcoming back the rest of the community next week. Dressed in the green garb denoting the religious season of “Ordinary Time,” she detailed the new, extraordinary measures in place, holding a mask she wore anytime she stepped away from the pulpit.

On a typical summer Sunday, UCSJ go to izo people; under the state’s guidelines, the church can fit a little less than 5o now with the mandatory spacing. New speakers will hopefully allow more people to sit outside the building and hear the service, and Stofferahn said she may add a second service if necessary.

Father Nathanael Foshage may do the same at St. Daniel’s Catholic Church in Ouray, adding a second Sunday Mass for the first time in his more than two decades leading the parish.

“We were right at our limit both Saturday night and Sunday,” Foshage said, with about 50 people at each service. Inside the sanctuary, every other pew is closed off with yellow rope to enforce the spacing requirements - a 6-foot buffer between congregants or family groups seated together.

If overflow space is needed, the downstairs hall below the sanctuary can hold another 50 people watching a livestream of the service, while more people still are watching from home, especially those who are most vulnerable to the virus. Adding a Mass at lo:3o on Sunday would likely help thin the crowd at the earlier Mass, something he expects to try in the coming weeks.

“We could handle our own people,” he said, but the numbers of tourists who typically come will make it harder to manage the capacity limits. If more than loo people turn up for Mass, he’ll tell people to watch from home, or come back for a later service if they can.

Others, especially those who are more vulnerable or worried about catching the virus, have been coming to smaller, weekday services with fewer than 10 people, “so we can easily have people substitute their Sunday obligations to weekdays.”

Ouray is the largest of the four churches that Foshage serves, causing the most complications for resuming Masses.

He started up services again in Nucla a few weeks ago, setting up an altar outside on a warm, though windy, day.

“They backed their pickups in a semi-circle,” Foshage said, forming their own self-contained pews for each family. “We did that for a couple weeks,” he said, but the congregation is small enough to return easily to mass indoors now. His parish in Silverton also returned without any problems last weekend; he’ll have his first mass in Telluride this weekend.

Outdoor services could be another way for larger congregations to resume meeting. Stofferahn, whose church faces Hartwell Park, is hoping to get permission to have a service there, where more people could fit while remaining 6 feet apart. The state guidelines allow for such gatherings “up to local capacity levels,” as long as groups from different households maintain the necessary spacing.

The county isn’t setting caps on that number, Public Health Director Tanner Kingery said. Local capacity levels are determined to be “what can that venue essentially hold, with that 6-foot distancing,” he said.

For smaller churches without as much concern for capacity, it’s easier to return to something close to typical services.

Ridgway Community Church has loo seats, but “we’re a fairly small church; 40 or 50 is a real good number for us,” Pastor Del Smith said. The church hasn’t reconfigured seating but at the first services since resuming, “it’s been amazing to watch as people come in, they are just sitting 6 feet or more apart,” without needing enforcement.

For the most part, people have kept their distance, though Smith conceded he “saw some people visiting less than 6 feet apart.”

“It’s hard to keep people that love each other that far apart,” he said. “It’s good to get together and spend some time worshiping and praying and going through scripture; it’s been a good time to get back together.”

St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ouray, however, has decided to remain closed for in-person worship, sticking with twice-daily prayer and Sunday services online through Zoom. Parish administrator April Underwood said a decision about when to reopen will be made after the church surveys members and in consultation with local guidelines and the state diocese.

Bishop Kym Lucas, who leads the Episcopal Church in Colorado, wrote in a letter earlier this month that congregations should continue to use caution. Statewide, only “a few congregations” had made plans to resume in-person worship in late June, she said.

“Everybody just is concerned about taking the time to open up,” Underwood said, adding that, so far, “Zoom is working for us.”

Smith and Stofferahn both said the forced separation may actually have invigorated their flocks.

“I think the two months off that we were not able to be together, I think it actually strengthened our compassion and love for other people and the world, for those that were struggling,” Smith said. “Suddenly, the world changed so quickly, almost overnight, and it strengthened our faith that God is in control.”

UCSJ has been providing weekly “socially distant devotions” with links to filmed music and sermons, reflection questions and prayers. Book groups and Bible studies have been held virtually over Zoom calls, which has brought an unexpected increase in participants.

She attributes that in part to convenience — people can tune in to a Monday morning prayer group without changing out of pajamas — and to people seeking a sense of community during isolation, “because all the other connections have been stripped away”

“For a congregation like ours, in-person gatherings were the thing. This really opened the doors to try new ways to reach out to people,” she said. “Summer members,” who live elsewhere during the winter, have been able to connect remotely, and “we’re liking that technology is enabling us to strengthen our connection to the people who are typically only here seasonally.”

Foshage said people from Texas, California and Arizona, who have attended Mass at St. Daniel’s before, have tuned in to the livestream and sent donations in recent weeks. While they could tune in to other online Masses, they like seeing familiar faces and places, he said.

“It’s been an incredible journey of learning for us, and will continue to be for months to come,” Stofferahn said. “In a way, I think this season of learning has been great for the church.”

Liz Teitz is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms and has chosen the Ouray County Plaindealer as a host newsroom. For more information please visit www.reportforamerica.org.