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‘We’re not alone in this’: Spokane-area places of worship adjust Christmas services amid COVID-19 concerns

Volunteers Sue Plummer, on left, and Ann Reinhart decorate the sanctuary at Manito United Methodist Church on Saturday. The church is holding a walk-through on Christmas Eve during which people can stop by in small groups and light a candle.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Rebecca White and Greg Mason The Spokesman-Review

At one point, the Coeur d’Alene Seventh-day Adventist Church planned on having a drive-in Christmas service this year, said the Rev. Jeremiah Smart.

Eschewing traditional holiday services due to COVID-19 restrictions, the church was preparing to host families last Friday in the parking lot, where parishioners would have tuned in via FM radio while watching the ceremony and live performers on a raised stage and a big screen.

That Thursday, however, church leaders discovered someone who was on campus the weekend before tested positive for COVID-19. Smart, the church’s pastor, said the news initiated a 13-day quarantine retroactive to when that person was present; church members agreed to quarantine procedures earlier this year in the event of a confirmed case.

“We wanted to make sure that we didn’t become part of the problem of spreading COVID,” he said. “We have quite a few of our members, and the community we’re associated with, that are in some of the high-risk groups.”

The situation forced the Coeur d’Alene Seventh-day Adventist Church back to where Spokane-area places of worship have gone all year to adapt during the pandemic: the drawing board.

As of Monday, the state of Washington’s COVID-19 restrictions for religious and faith-based organizations limit indoor services to 25% capacity with 6-foot distancing between households. Congregational singing also is prohibited.

Outdoor services have no capacity limits as long as 6-foot distancing is in place, though the state recommends a maximum of 200 people. Whether it’s indoor or outdoor, however, face coverings are required.

In Idaho, places of worship are required only to enforce 6-foot distancing under Gov. Brad Little’s modified Stage 2 COVID-19 plan. The state has otherwise released a series of related recommendations.

With the drive-in cancelled, Smart said Coeur d’Alene Seventh-day Adventist Church members instead produced an online Christmas concert that included a variety of performances and a sermon. The video was released Saturday.

“I am thrilled,” Smart said. “Our church members have been very cooperative, and obviously there’s a variety of opinions on how to handle everything. But it’s amazing to see that no matter everybody’s perspectives or opinions, everybody worked together on this.”

Finding that ‘worshipful moment’

By Wednesday, churches with the Spokane Ministerial Fellowship decided not to hold in-person holiday services, said the Rev. Walter Kendricks.

The fellowship, composed of predominantly Black and Baptist churches, has held joint services with a few hundred people in years past. Due to COVID-19 concerns and restrictions, however, only some churches will host virtual services individually, said Kendricks, fellowship president and pastor of the Morning Star Baptist Church in Spokane.

“Because Black people as a body are quite susceptible to the virus, they think it’s better that we do it online until we get vaccinated and all that stuff,” he said.

While it is too late to save Christmas, Kendricks said the fellowship is considering an in-person and virtual gathering for New Year’s Eve.

And even though past holiday programs have invoked more pomp and circumstance, Kendricks said the occasion is “not so much about the Christmas tree or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

“It’s cliche, but we’re honoring the savior,” he said. “And that’s what we’re doing at Christmas.”

For Rev. Tiffany DeTienne and many members of the Manito United Methodist Church, this Christmas season is one of both sadness and joy.

Manito United Methodist Church, which hasn’t met in person since the pandemic’s start, won’t hold a traditional Christmas Eve service. Instead, members will hold a walk-through candle lighting for small groups.

“A lot of people feel like their holy space has been taken away from them,” DeTienne said. “This is just a moment where we’re letting folks come in and have that worshipful moment in a space that is meaningful.”

Despite the restrictions, the congregation has found ways to stay close and celebrate Christmas safely, DeTienne said.

She said church members have checked on each other over the phone and raised money for Family Promise, a family homeless shelter, as well as Shalom Ministries, a nonprofit that provides food for the homeless downtown.

DeTienne also brought some typically in-person Christmas traditions into people’s homes through at-home Advent kits. She recalled how one church member cried when the kits were delivered, saying the delivery was a comforting reminder in a challenging time.

“The little things like that, it’s amazing the amount of hope they can bring,” DeTienne said.

Stepping up protocols

Other churches still will hold in-person services, though with some breaks from tradition to ensure people can attend safely.

Life Center, a megachurch in Spokane, will hold 10 Christmas Eve services starting the Sunday before Christmas to make sure every member can attend and ensure social distancing requirements, said Andy Wittwer, a Life Center communications team member. Life Center’s building can normally accommodate more than 1,000 people.

Wittwer said church leaders are encouraging the congregation and community to reach out if they feel isolated or are struggling. He added that all services also will be available online to ensure anyone who can’t attend in person can still participate.

St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church in Spokane, which has similarly maintained an online presence with past liturgies, will livestream this year’s holiday Masses, said the Rev. Tom Lamanna.

The church will host four gatherings Christmas Eve and two on Christmas, limiting attendance at each to 150 people. St. Aloysius typically holds four holiday Masses, drawing upwards of 1,000 people during the popular Children’s Mass on Christmas Eve, Lamanna said.

This year, the church offered online preregistration for each Mass. While 25% capacity is 200 people for St. Aloysius, Lamanna said the church’s social distancing measures – which include closing off pews and 6-foot markings down the center aisle – only allow for 150 attendees.

“People are staying away because they’re conscious, and I applaud them for that. It’s the wise thing to do,” Lamanna said. “Families need to make decisions that make sense from their end.”

For the holiday services, Lamanna said the church has added extra ushers to help people find space and maintain distancing parameters. Meanwhile, St. Aloysius will open two typically unused balconies for overflow space.

Lamanna said the church will not have congregational singing due to the state mandates. But there will be some songs – including familiar Christmas songs – to provide comfort, he said. Other parts will be spoken word.

“Coming together to pray virtually or in person is a really helpful way to navigate through those troubled waters,” Lamanna said. “We’re not alone in this.”