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Churches plot cautious course after Baker allows reopening

Parishioners spaced out amid roped-off pews to ensure proper social distancing prayed during Mass at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish.
Parishioners spaced out amid roped-off pews to ensure proper social distancing prayed during Mass at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The rumble of the massive pipe organ inside First Lutheran Church of Boston rose through the hangar-like space Sunday morning, overpowering the muffled voices of the eight masked men and women singing hymns among two dozen mostly empty pews.

Two people sat alone, a husband and wife huddled together, and a pair of married couples made up a sort of quartet, all wearing face coverings and spaced about 20 feet apart inside the cavernous Back Bay church.

Blue paper masks were available on a table by the door, near a standing dispenser for hand sanitizer.

On the first Sunday that Massachusetts churches were allowed to reopen to large groups, most did not, choosing, like First Lutheran, to keep congregations tiny and widely spread, or simply to continue streaming services online, as many have done from the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Faith leaders across Massachusetts and in other states that are warily reopening as infection rates tick downward face the logistics of operating houses of worship amid a continuing pandemic.

They must address not only seating arrangements and cherished rituals of their faith, but also questions of how pastors can safely interact with congregations, providing ministry and comfort at an awkward distance. And they face the thorny issue of how — or whether — they can offer Holy Communion in a way that won’t spread infection.

Next to the collection plate was a large bottle of hand sanitizer.  Those attending this service in First Lutheran Church made reservations to attend.
Next to the collection plate was a large bottle of hand sanitizer. Those attending this service in First Lutheran Church made reservations to attend. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“I feel like a dancing camel up there,” the Rev. James Hopkins, First Lutheran’s pastor, said of the complex process his church now employs for the Lord’s Supper.

Hopkins uses individual cups rather than the traditional shared chalice, offers the host on individual napkins, covers everything with a cloth during the blessing so he doesn’t breathe on it, and steps back six feet while masked congregants advance slowly and help themselves.

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Hopkins, 37, did not wear a face covering while leading the service but maintained a distance from others, then put on a mask afterward.

Since Holy Week, First Lutheran has offered Sunday services limited to 10 parishioners, in compliance with Governor Charlie Baker’s March order banning large gatherings, Hopkins said. Congregants sign up for a reservation, and the service is livestreamed on Facebook.

Hopkins was one of more than 260 pastors from churches across the state who signed a letter to Baker in early May calling on him to allow churches to reopen. President Trump echoed the faith leaders Friday, saying he was declaring “churches, synagogues, and mosques as essential places that provide essential services.”

Last week, Baker announced that houses of worship could open immediately and issued new guidance on social-distancing measures and other precautions. First Lutheran plans to relax its limit on attendance under Baker’s new guidelines, but it has not yet set a timeline for expansion.

Church members have formed a subcommittee made up of medical professionals, those in groups at elevated risk for the virus, and parents of young children, to plan a cautious reopening following Baker’s new guidelines, recognizing that “for some people [this is] a semi-permanent change,” Hopkins said.

The Rev. Robert Schipul, the retired pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Scituate, said eight sister congregations on the South Shore are separately planning individual reopening processes. None reopened Sunday.

Listening to Pastor James Hopkins, are from left, Bart Nuboer, Janet Nuboer Schmitz, Sandra Schipul, and retired Pastor Robert Schipul.  All four are from Hingham.
Listening to Pastor James Hopkins, are from left, Bart Nuboer, Janet Nuboer Schmitz, Sandra Schipul, and retired Pastor Robert Schipul. All four are from Hingham. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“It’s interesting to see how each one is finding the uniqueness of their parish to be able to do that,” said Schipul, 78, who attended Sunday’s service at First Lutheran with his wife, Sandra, 72, and fellow Hingham residents Bart Nuboer, 83, and his wife, Janet Nuboer Schmitz, 70. They made reservations three weeks in advance.

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“For a pastor and church council, this is one of the greatest challenges they’ve ever had to work with. . . . How is this going to change us, and excite us, and [help us] see that we have a real purpose of touching people’s lives and ministering to them?” Schipul said.

Some faith leaders said Baker’s Monday announcement left too little lead time for houses of worship to reopen by the weekend. Baker administration officials did not respond to a request for comment Sunday afternoon.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston expected fewer than 20 percent of its 280 parishes to celebrate Mass on Sunday, while most will reopen over the next couple of weeks, according to spokesman Terrence Donilon.

The archdiocese has received “very good reports from a number of parishes which held outdoor and indoor Masses. 200-300 attendees in some cases. Some smaller. We also have received positive reports of people following the guidelines for attending Mass,” Donilon said in an e-mail Sunday afternoon.

At Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Milford, parishioners prayed while spaced out amid roped-off pews to ensure social distancing.

The Rev. Ray A. Hammond, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain, gave an online sermon from home Sunday morning, as he has done since March.

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Hammond was part of a delegation led by the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization that met in early May with the state’s Reopening Advisory Board to discuss resuming worship services according to a careful, measured process.

The Rev. James Hopkins talked about the changes they've had to make in the church.
The Rev. James Hopkins talked about the changes they've had to make in the church. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Hammond said faith leaders and officials in Massachusetts should watch what happens in other nations and in states that began reopening before Massachusetts — and sometimes then tightened restrictions after infections increased — as they plan for a safe reopening.

Baker, who has faced political and legal challenges to his closure of churches, must make plans for the entire state, Hammond said. Local leaders and clergy must make decisions based on their own communities, he said.

“The Commonwealth is looking at the Commonwealth,” Hammond said. “The City of Boston is not the Commonwealth.“

For now, Hammond said he doesn’t mind preaching from home.

“As you do it a little more, you get quite comfortable with it,” he said. “I’m feeling much more relaxed and at ease, and people tell me they notice it in my preaching.”

At First Lutheran Church, Sandra Schipul said no video sermon can compare to being in a house of worship.

In a change, Communion gifts are placed at the altar rail before worshipers approach.
In a change, Communion gifts are placed at the altar rail before worshipers approach. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“It’s amazing. It’s live, it’s uplifting, it’s real, you see people,” she said. “Our church [in Scituate] has video services, and it’s fine, it’s wonderful. But this is what church should be. It should be the fellowship with your community members — and Communion.”

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Janet Nuboer Schmitz said, “It’s nice to be in God’s house. It’s a place that fills your heart in a different way than sitting in front of a computer.”

For Hopkins, being separated from his congregation means missing out on nonverbal cues that give him important information about them, in the same way that mental health clinicians and school teachers have expressed concerns about missing potential signs of abuse, substance use, or other issues when forced to move their work online.

“Having that immediate access to parishioners on Sunday is one of the ways that they’re telling me how they’re doing. Not just with their words, or with an e-mail, or with a phone call — but when I’m in the pulpit, and I say something, and I see a grimace. I know people’s reactions because I know them,” he said.

“So right now, one of my most useful tools for knowing the health of my congregation, spiritually, is not there. That’s a really difficult obstacle.”


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.