WINCHESTER — Fellowship Bible Church parishioners prayed, pondered biblical scripture and sang songs together this weekend as they typically do at church.
But services weren't typical this weekend. They were the first at the church since coronavirus concerns closed it on March 8. Worship has been online during the break.
"Wow, real live people. How about that? I thought I'd come out here in pajamas and with a cup of coffee and a rolled up newspaper and stare at you. Because that's what you've been doing for 10 weeks," said the Rev. Mark Carey, the church's senior pastor. "If you get a nervous twitch in your hand where you feel like you have the remote in your hand, I will not be paused. It's just not going to happen. But it is good to be back."
While Carey used humor as an ice-breaker for the start of his sermon, church elders took coronavirus precautions seriously, according to John C. Van Drunen, executive pastor. He said they implemented several measures to reduce the risk of infection.
The church sanctuary can hold up to 1,000 people, but pews were moved at least 61/2 feet from one another with every other row removed. Families were asked to sit at least three seats from one another.
On Saturday, 122 people worshiped, according to Van Drunen. At the first service on Sunday, 250 attended and 107 participated in the second service.
Masks were offered at the entrance, although only a handful of parishioners on Sunday wore them in the sanctuary. Greeters opened doors and foot openers had been installed at the bottom of the bathroom doors to reduce the chances of infection through touching surfaces. The church's HVAC system was adjusted to allow outside air in and it blew interior air outside. A cleaning crew wiped down surfaces between services.
Van Drunen noted the state order on re-opening churches allowed them to reopen on May 17 at 50% capacity. And although at least two area churches opened on May 17, Van Drunen said Fellowship Bible Church elders opted to wait six days to formulate plans. Parishioners with compromised immune systems were encouraged to view taped versions of the services online.
"There's been a strong commitment from the elders on down to making sure that safety is an important priority in this process," Van Drunen said. "We're trying to provide an opportunity that allows those that desire to come out to worship to be able to worship together, but if we're going to do that, we're going to do that safely."
Parishioner Sara Wagner, who began attending the church in 2001, said she had no apprehension about returning.
"I know this church to be very thoughtful in everything they do and the decisions they make," said Wagner, who volunteered to open doors on Sunday. "It's very well planned, well organized, abiding by the laws yet still respecting people's freedoms to do what works best for them."
The re-opening came as COVID-19 deaths reached about 343,000 globally, including about 97,000 in the U.S. In Virginia on Sunday. the death toll reached 1,171 — including 43 regionally — more than double the 581 deaths on May 1, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
Concern that resuming services would put worshipers at risk, led clergy from 22 downtown churches to keep their places of worship shuttered despite the state directive. The Downtown Clergy Fellowship gave its rationale in a guest editorial published on May 16 in The Winchester Star titled "Saving a life supersedes every other religious obligation."
"For us to open slowly and safely at the appropriate time, abiding by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, is the right choice. It is our way of loving God and loving neighbors," the editorial said. "We respect other faith communities who have come to other conclusions. We are saddened and even angry that a biological pandemic has become an occasion for polarization and division."
On Friday, Trump said churches and other houses of worship were “essential” and called on governors to let them reopen. Even though some areas of the country are still on lockdown, Trump said religious leaders can be counted on to protect their flocks.
"They love their congregations. They love their people," Trump said, according to the White House transcript. "They don’t want anything bad to happen to them or to anybody else."
Carey, whose sermon focused on how the congregation is all part of the family of God, referenced Trump's remarks about places of worship providing essential services.
"I'm glad we have a president who declared churches essential," he said. "But guess what? God has been deeming churches essential for 2,000 years."