Church pew

Some Norfolk churches are reverting to measures taken earlier this year to help stop the spread of COVID-19 in the community. 

On Wednesday, the Elkhorn Logan Valley Public Health Department reported that Madison, Stanton, Cuming and Burt counties were in the severe “red” COVID-19 risk level in a dial update.

At First Christian Church in Norfolk, the update kicked into action a response congregation leaders had developed earlier this year when the health department introduced the risk dial.

“In red, we pause in-person gathering and provide services online and on TV only,” said Tim DeFor, lead minister at First Christian. “We are working on getting the word out and encouraging the people of First Christian and Northeast Nebraska to join us online or on TV.”

DeFor said in-person participation in worship services at the church has been less than a quarter of what it was before the initial shutdown, but he believes now more people than ever are joining through digital options. Still, the absence of in-person worship is felt, he said.

“The greatest negative effect is the loss of the relational Velcro that comes from seeing faces and the short visits in kids’ and youth ministry, in small groups, in the auditorium, in the lobby, in homes and at the coffee shop,” he said. “This separation is ... very hard on people’s emotions and their sense of community, belonging and family.”

The Rev. Lee Weander of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Norfolk said the negative effects of not having in-person interaction have weighed heavily as Our Savior’s leadership determines the best practices to follow in regard to the risk of COVID-19.

“Our youth are experiencing extreme levels of anxiety because of the situation, and the opportunity for them to get together — even if they have to be socially distant and wear masks — seems to be a very positive hour in their week,” Weander said of the church’s youth activities.

Our Savior is implementing mask requirements at one of its services, as well as its other gatherings until further notice. The church may decide to reduce activities, too, but Weander said he does not anticipate it will suspend in-person worship services at this time.

“Obviously there are some members who are disappointed. They don’t want to have to wear masks. I don’t think most of us like being told what to do, but the vast majority of people understand it’s about our moral and Christian obligation for our fellow parishioners and our community,” Weander said. “If we can reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our community, then Our Savior wants to be part of that.”

The Rev. Chris Winegar, lead pastor at LifePoint Church, said LifePoint would continue in-person gatherings at this time, as well.

Winegar said the church has two gathering times and adequate space to accommodate appropriate social distancing measures, but it also offers a live-stream of its second service for those who don’t feel comfortable attending in person, are quarantined or who are ill.

“Our heart is to gather,” Winegar said of the importance of gathering for in-person services. “(The church) is not a place or a service, but it’s a people. Those people should want to be together because it’s people. If we have to go online, we’re able to do that, but ultimately our desire is to be together.”

The Rev. Pat McLaughlin, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Parish in Norfolk, said in-person services would continue and the church is compliant with the guidelines from the health department.

Weekend Mass and some of its daily Masses are offered online, he said, and any overflow attendance at in-person Masses are able to be seated at the nearby Burns Hall gym.

“We have a video of what’s going on in the Mass, and we take a communion to them (at the gym),” he said.

McLaughlin said under regular circumstances, Catholics have a Sunday obligation to attend Mass, but Archbishop George Lucas has given dispensation for that obligation because of the threat of COVID-19.

At First United Methodist Church in Norfolk, congregation members are — like First Christian — transitioning church activities back to online only like earlier this year.

“Red is when we reduce to essential function at the church,” said the Rev. Neil Gately, a pastor at the church. “We are not having on-site fellowship activities, on-site worship activities, Bible studies. Everything is transitioning to online.”

Gately said First United Methodist had not encouraged its congregants to return after the first shutdown, but it included photos of church members in its online art that accompanies the digital activities and services as a way to help them feel connected.

“It is a struggle right now,” Gately said of engaging in fellowship without in-person gatherings. “We know that people are struggling to maintain their faith in this current environment. It is a huge inconvenience, but we also know no one is being fed to the lions right now.”

Gately said his congregation has adopted the belief that the efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus — including the wearing of masks and implementation of social distancing — is a statement of faith.

“The greatest commandment is love God with everything, heart, mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself,” Gately said. “You wear a mask for others. If we’re wrong ... we’re inconvenienced, but nobody has died. What’s the down side of being cautious versus the down side of ignoring the science?”

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