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For area religious leaders, patience in tribulation

Places of worship were given the go-ahead to reopen, but many say they will tread carefully in the weeks ahead.

A woman kneeled on the front steps of Saint Teresa of Calcutta Church on Columbia Road in Boston last month while the church's doors were closed.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

After hearing Governor Charlie Baker announce that houses of worship are allowed to reopen Monday, leaders of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, a network of 18 Protestant and Orthodox denominations, quoted St. Paul from 1 Corinthians: “‘All things are lawful for me,' but not all things are beneficial."

Since houses of worship have had to close their doors to try and stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, faith leaders in Massachusetts have gotten creative: Live-streaming services online, holding them in parking lots with low-frequency radio transmissions, setting up drive-through communions. They’ve marked Easter and Passover and most of Ramadan, which ends this weekend, while physically apart.


Now they can reopen their doors — albeit at 40 percent capacity, wearing protective masks, spacing families at least six feet apart and blocking off pews and other fixed seating to encourage distancing, according to state regulations released Monday.

Archdiocese of Boston leaders said its Catholic churches can begin reopening as early as Saturday, but only if parish leaders feel prepared to do so safely. Cardinal Seán O’Malley still asked Catholics who are elderly or have medical conditions that would put them at greater risk to continue watching services from home. And parishes who do not yet feel ready to reopen can take another week to prepare.

“Parishes should not resume Masses before they are ready, and the decision to delay the resumption of Masses until May 31 may very well be the best decision for a parish,” archdiocesan leaders wrote in a document released Monday. "No matter what the start date, no parish should have Mass unless they can do it safely, and in compliance with the guidelines.”

Other faith leaders said they were not in a rush to reopen.

“Churches are designed to be places of healing, not sources of sickness," the Rev. Laura Everett and Rev. Jennie Barrett Siegal of the Massachusetts Council of Churches wrote Monday. "Many Christians will remain in prayer and praise from home at this time. To those Christians that do decide to return now to their buildings, we advise all to act with extreme caution during this pandemic.”


Everett, executive director of the council, noted in an interview that the state’s guidelines focus on workplace safety, not on religious practices like baptisms.

“It’s one thing to say 40 percent capacity. If that means holding six services on a Sunday, maybe that’s just not feasible.” Everett said.

Church leaders she has spoken to, especially those who serve communities that were vulnerable before the virus began spreading, are struggling with the weight of the pandemic, Everett said.

“I’m also hearing decision fatigue. People have had to make a lot of decisions, and they’re tired. Understandably tired. They’ve been through trauma, this is wearying. And the financial and logistical problems for churches are very real.”

Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell said she worried reopening spaces will give people an unearned sense of security.

“Normally, I’m in church every Sunday. I miss my community there and want to go back just as much as anyone else, but I won’t yet — especially when so many church-goers are elders," Campbell said.

The Islamic Society of Boston got the news while preparing for this weekend’s Eid Al Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.


“In our eid, we have at least 5,000 to 7,000 people coming together to celebrate. We can not take a risk in re-opening. People get so emotional,” said Amr Elfass, the executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. “We are in front of a virus that does not differentiate.”

Leaders of the mosques in Roxbury and Cambridge decided to keep celebrations virtual this year, and reopen the mosques with the required precautions after the holiday. This weekend they will hold prayers on their website and Facebook page, and have two car parades — one in Boston, one in Cambridge — where families can come together at a distance to collect bags of candy for children without putting one another at risk, Elfass said.

In Jamaica Plain, Pastor Ray Hammond of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, said his church leadership decided to delay reopening their building until they can figure out the logistics of distancing and cleaning, and see how religious worship, contact tracing, and increased testing are affecting the virus’s spread across the state and nation.

He wants to see his congregation in person again. After all, some things, like the not-so-joyful noise of singing on Zoom calls, are not the same. But safety comes first, he said.

“We want to open, but we want to do it safely,” Hammond said. “We want to be together again, but we’re not dying to be together again.”

Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Gal Tziperman Lotan is a former Globe staff member.