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Houses Of Worship Around The Country Are Struggling To Reopen


Around the country, houses of worship are reopening, some after fighting to do so. But it could be a long time before services are back to anything like normal. Ministers have been preaching to empty sanctuaries, their congregations watching online. Church suppers are on hold. Some people have grown accustomed to the change while others may be drifting away. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: In Arizona, an Episcopal congregation needs its reopening plan approved by the diocese. The bishop for Arizona, Jennifer Reddall, lays out the requirements - no more than 50 people, no touching, no wine at Communion, no singing and no choir. Reddall, who started singing in a choir at the age of 6, says for her, personally, that'll be the hardest.

JENNIFER REDDALL: I would never have heard my call to the priesthood if I hadn't found my faith through song. I'm not even sure I would be a Christian today if I wasn't able to pray by singing. But I don't want to kill someone by my prayer or by my music.

GJELTEN: Health experts say the coronavirus has easily spread through singing. So for Episcopal parishioners in Arizona like Rachel Sampson in Tucson, the only music option is to follow the church program at home.

RACHEL SAMPSON: I've been doing that, but it's starting to feel really sad and hard for me to keep sitting in my living room singing by myself. Now that we're eight or nine weeks into it, I'm starting to feel disconnected from it.

GJELTEN: The importance of choirs to a congregation is evident at Meadowridge Baptist in Fort Worth, Texas. When I visited last fall, Pastor Randal Lyle told me how establishing a choir was part of his plan to make his church more racially diverse.

RANDAL LYLE: I said - when I came here, I said, we're not going to do choir. But as we began to think, OK, this community is primarily Anglo and African American, choir's huge in African American church. And so we realized we need to have a choir.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) You alone are worthy.

GJELTEN: Establishing required did prove important. Most of the members are African American or were before Meadowridge closed in March. It's now preparing to reopen, Lyle says, but without the choir.

LYLE: We will still have a praise team and some singers but no choir. And at least starting out, we will be asking everyone at least when they're singing to wear a mask.

GJELTEN: The coronavirus has had a major effect on church life in America as we learned when we asked listeners to share their thoughts on Claire Anderson in Marietta, Ga., says she attended church several times a week leading Bible study groups and children's activities. To her, the suspension of in-person worship is like God sending everybody to their room for a timeout.

CLAIRE ANDERSON: I can really focus on my relationship with God and just being still, you know, and not being rushed. I think that's the beauty of this time. And it's sad to me that some people have not taken the opportunity just to be still with God and really listen to God.

GJELTEN: But for some people, the isolation is harder. In Chicago, Mary McGrath finds herself regretting how she has lost touch with her Catholic parish. She now yearns to be in a church building.

MARY MCGRATH: I was very surprised to, like, have that feeling kind of hit me. Like, wow, I really would like to be in a pew right now in a place that's bigger and holier than I am.

GJELTEN: The way people are reacting to this worship shutdown depends in part on their past experience. For John Chadwick, a retired Lutheran pastor in Iowa, it's 40 years of preaching and the realization that his faith no longer provides the answers he needs.

JOHN CHADWICK: I look at the virus and I wonder - I question - as a pastor, I always say, we need to trust God in all this, and that's OK to say that, but I've got to admit, for me, I wonder where God is, which is not great for a pastor, I realize. But that's where I am today.

GJELTEN: In suburban Minneapolis, Beth Daniel says when her Covenant Church closed, it helped her realize how it had already lost its appeal.

BETH DANIEL: It really hasn't changed anything because I wasn't attending regularly anyway. I have found that I feel less guilty about not going (laughter). I thought at first it might encourage me to do more online worship, but it really hasn't.

GJELTEN: People join a worship community for many reasons. And so what they miss or appreciate when service is suspended depends on what they had been getting from it. In Kansas City, Mo., what Sarah DeVoto most valued about her Methodist church family was how it was a lifeline for her and her husband when their baby son died shortly after birth.

SARAH DEVOTO: They came to the hospital at 4 a.m. for us. They made sure we had meals. That community was able to pray over me when I couldn't pray. It was a time that I wish hadn't happened, but it was also a time that I never felt ever alone.

GJELTEN: Support, solace, a spiritual bond - the things that matter in the worship experience but, for some people, the things they now see their church was not providing.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.