PENINSULA — During the period of stay-at-home lockdowns last summer, churches were closed along with most other centers of indoor activity, as many super-spreader events had been traced to churches.
But as the pandemic continued, treating church as “non-essential” over the long term became untenable in Washington. In July, “stay home” became a recommendation rather than a requirement. Capacity restrictions were implemented and then increased. That left churches and churchgoers themselves to make the difficult decision of how much caution to exercise.
Many churches reopened locally, but a large share of congregants continued to stay home. Ilwaco New Life Assembly of God reopened in July. According to Pastor John Thomas, most of the congregation is over 60 years old, and most have been very cautious. Congregation size as of last month was barely breaking 20, down from around 50 pre-pandemic. Since the church has the capacity to hold 100 people, state-imposed capacity limits have never been an issue. Even rising vaccination levels have only started to bring people back.
The church lacks technology to provide a live-stream of its services, and so instead makes recordings available. Thomas said it has been a great challenge keeping people connected. To increase the feeling of connection between online and in-person church life, he solicited questions to be submitted via Facebook. His current sermon series is focused on answering these questions.
Easing back toward normal
Gov. Jay Inslee recently allowed churches to implement vaccinated sections without distancing. Not all local churches have availed themselves of this option.
“We aren’t going to segregate our congregation,” Thomas said.
Peninsula Baptist Church has also so far not implemented a vaccinated section. With their spacious auditorium in Ocean Park that would accommodate a much larger congregation than they are seeing, capacity restrictions have never been an issue.
But Ocean Park Lutheran Church has given the vaccinated section a try. “There hasn’t been much awkwardness,” pastor Louise Buckles said. “We were worried about it at first, but we haven’t had any complaints.”
Ocean Park Lutheran waited to reopen. They were transitioning to a new pastor, Louise Buckles. Buckles came in on an interim basis in August. When she began delivering sermons, the church was still online only. One of her biggest tasks was to get to know the congregation despite that barrier.
Finally, on Easter of 2021, Ocean Park Lutheran held its first outdoor service. On May 2, the church’s governing body voted to call Buckles to be their full-time pastor, and she preached her first sermon in that capacity. May 9, the church finally opened indoors.
With the current rules, their capacity was 50 people. They decided they did not want to make people pre-arrange to attend church. They set up socially distanced seating, and decided if they were ever over capacity, they would simply hold two services. So far, attendance has not reached that level.
A different experience
For those who have gone to church, the atmosphere has been different. Distancing requirements are in place. There have been restrictions on singing and music, with choirs having been identified early on in the pandemic as a particular super-spreading danger. These restrictions on music have become looser.
New Life has used YouTube videos for instrumental, something they had started resorting to already when their instrumentalist left just before the pandemic. Ocean Park Lutheran uses an online pianist rather than live music. Peninsula Baptist recently brought back live music, though spacing restrictions make for fewer musicians on stage than before the pandemic.
People always found ways to adapt. The congregation of Ocean Park Lutheran worked to keep the church vibrant through the pandemic, meeting in small groups, sometimes at Adelaide’s.
At the peaks of the pandemic, Thomas of New Life said, there was little socializing at church even among those who were attending.
“People weren’t sticking around and things like that. But we’re starting to see a return to normal.”