Returning to Church as the Pandemic Wears On
COVID-19 has changed everything – including church. For the past several months, all the church services in The Salvation Army Metropolitan Division – stretching from Waukegan to Joliet and from Rockford to Gary, Indiana – have been held virtually. Worship music, sermons, and Bible studies have reached these church members on their couches or at their kitchen tables via the internet.
But as government restrictions for public gatherings have eased, some of our churches have been able to resume in-person meetings. While services still aren’t quite the same, many are finding hidden blessings in the time apart and new perspectives on why congregations gather in the first place.
In addition to requiring face masks and social distancing, staff members at The Salvation Army Temple Corps Community Center in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood take church attendees’ temperature before they enter the sanctuary and administer a brief questionnaire. The congregation is encouraged not to linger and mingle after the service. Major Clara Braddock, corps officer at the Temple Corps, notes that all these precautions impact the community feeling she usually encourages and enjoys at their church.
“It isn't ideal to test people before they can enter the building. It’s very sterile,” she said. “It isn't easy greeting people and yet not hugging or seeing their faces. It isn't easy singing and praising God and not seeing the joyful expressions on faces. But these are the times we live in, and until there is a change, we have to do this in order to meet.”
Some corps have gotten creative in the face of COVID guidelines. “We’re using an ‘offering truck’ to maintain social distance during offering time,” said Lieutenant Leta Marin of the East Chicago Corps Community Center. One of their staff drives a remote-controlled truck around the spread-out rows of church attendees to collect any offerings. It’s both COVID-appropriate and entertaining.
For the corps who have resumed in-person services, that first Sunday back after months apart was momentous. “Our first Sunday was a joyful opportunity to see our corps members and friends together as one body again,” said Major Marcelo Orbe, corps officer and pastor of The Salvation Army Belvidere Corps Community Center. “To be able to worship as an in-person congregation again is a blessing, and it was a grateful moment to see my brothers and sisters’ faithfulness and love to our Lord and Savior.”
LaVillita’s Carlos Moran was more conflicted. “Mixed feelings, really,” he said, when asked about his thoughts on their first Sunday back. “Good to see some of them again, sad for all the restrictions that were necessarily in place and for people that were not able or willing to meet again. Social times, closeness, and fellowship time are all part of the worship experience. Not being able to have that was hard and did not feel the same.”
Lieutenant Nancy Rivera leads the Mayfair Community Church Hispanic congregation with her husband and says they share that frustration. “In our culture, it is not quite the same when we cannot give a handshake or a hug to our brother and sister in Christ,” she said.
As difficult as time apart has been for many congregations, it’s come with some surprise blessings. “Prior to the pandemic, we would frequently thank God for the ability to meet together in our public prayers,” said Lieutenant Leta. “That prayer has taken on a new meaning now, and we are all grateful for the ability to be together to worship.”
The Des Plaines Corps Community Center realized they had new people watching and participating in their church services since they were available online. “It actually enlarged our borders and made the different ministries available for people even from different countries,” said Envoy Florinelvi (Ody) Giraldo from the Des Plaines corps.
Cecelia, a woman in their congregation, had been praying for years for Patricia, her grown daughter who lives in Mexico City. Patricia watched the Des Plaines church services via Facebook and through this influence became a Christian. “The family is very excited and feels blessed with this new life in Christ,” said Envoy Ody.
Lessons Along the Way
While more Salvation Army churches in the division will resume in-person services as restrictions ease, all are aware that the future is uncertain. Some experts predict the fall and winter will bring a rise in flu and COVID-19 cases that will necessitate sheltering in place again.
Through it all, Army leaders hope church members will keep their eyes open for the lessons to be learned. “I hope that people come away with a better sense of what the church is,” said Captain Xavier Montenegro, Divisional Secretary for Programs. “The church was never a building; it was always people.”
Whatever the future holds, his hopes are certain. “I know Salvation Army churches are providing hope, connection, and a reassurance that God is still God in the midst of the pandemic and racial injustices our country is facing. Those times at a Salvation Army church, whether in person or online, help give people a sense of a community and help them know they are never really alone.”
Learn about all the ways The Salvation Army is responding to the coronavirus – as well as how you can help – at salarmychicago.org/coronavirus.
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For tax purposes: The Salvation Army Metropolitan Division EIN is 36-2167910.