Clergy and lay leaders from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish organizations met virtually with state officials Tuesday to discuss how faith communities are responding to the coronavirus pandemic but set no timetable for reopening houses of worship, participants said.
Religious leaders told the state’s Reopening Advisory Board about the challenges of conducting funerals while socially distancing, the growing needs of congregants who have lost jobs or lack health insurance, and their concerns that choirs can spread the virus.
They discussed ensuring that when churches reopen, they will do so safely, with access to affordable protective gear and sanitization, but not when that will happen, according to participants.
The Rev. Ray A. Hammond, pastor of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain, said he and other clergy at the meeting want to collaborate with state officials and public health specialists to chart a careful course.
“Houses of worship absolutely want to work with the governor to make sure that any reopening is safe, not just for our congregants, but for the communities from which they come,” Hammond said in a phone interview. He added later, “Our inclination is to remain on the more conservative side of the recommendations.”
Kathleen Patrón, executive director of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, said Tuesday’s meeting was an extension of the group’s work with Governor Charlie Baker on social justice issues and focused largely on supporting congregations through the crisis.
“There aren’t that many other institutions in the Commonwealth that are really engaged this much with people on a day-to-day basis,” Patrón said in a phone interview.
The group’s deference to state officials stood in contrast to a letter sent to Baker last week by roughly 260 clergy urging him to reopen churches after his emergency order banning gatherings of more than 10 expires May 18. None of the letter’s signers participated in Tuesday’s meeting.
The meeting included representatives from the Massachusetts Council of Churches, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.
A spokesman for the archdiocese, Terrence Donilon, said it is “developing a series of phase-in plans to implement when we will begin to resume public Masses” and looks forward to further collaborating with the state to determine the timing and conditions for reopening churches.
In a statement, a spokesman for the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development said the Baker administration “is thankful for the individuals, businesses and organizations that are playing their part to stay home, stop the spread and protect at-risk populations, and the Administration is working to return to a new normal as safely and as soon as possible.”
The spokesman pointed to a statement Baker made at a briefing last week, saying that closing churches was “one of the most difficult elements” of his order banning large gatherings, but “there’s plenty of evidence from around the world that in places where people didn’t do that, religious gatherings became a really big hotbed, and a hot spot of outbreak.”