It looked like one of those typical Sunday morning scenes. As parishioners streamed into St. Mary of the Annunciation in Cambridge, they were welcomed at the church doors by a priest, the Rev. Daniel Zinger.
But once inside, the parishioners separated themselves into two groups. Those who wore masks — the majority of the congregation — could sit anywhere they wanted. Those who wished to remain unmasked, though, were asked to sit in the outside pews.
And there was an additional accommodation for a third group of parishioners. On the altar, a video camera sat ready to broadcast the Mass for those attending remotely.
The Catholic parish’s attempt to welcome all congregants is just one of many responses religious institutions are making after Massachusetts rescinded its pandemic-era restrictions on May 29. As congregations are allowed to fully reopen, they face a host of thorny issues, and some places of worship are allowing in-person, unmasked worship, while others still require face coverings or are continuing to convene virtually.
“None of us were trained to be public health experts, but we’re doing the best we can,” said the Rev. Hannah Brown, pastor of West Concord Union Church in Concord.
St. Mary’s has already made one change since that June 13 Sunday Mass. The church’s policy of separating masked and unmasked worshipers inside was just dissolved, after a parish poll revealed Mass attendees were not in favor of it.
“The general idea was that we would move with the pulse of the people,” the Rev. Michael Harrington, the parish’s pastor, said in an interview on the church steps after Mass.
That also means moving at different speeds within the parish because the church has a bilingual congregation; one Sunday Mass is in English, the other in Spanish. The church also has two parish councils, and each wants to reopen at a different tempo, Harrington told worshipers during an announcement at the English Mass.
Meanwhile, at West Concord Union, Brown said the congregation met via videoconference from March 2020 until last week, when they held an outdoor service, wearing masks and observing social distancing, on the fields of Thoreau Elementary School, two blocks from the church.
“It’s been a sacrifice to meet the way we have been, but it’s also been an act of love,” Brown said.
Brown recognizes that government restrictions no longer prevent her congregation from convening inside, and, by her estimate, nearly all parishioners are vaccinated. But the continuing precautions are meant to foster an inclusive environment, Brown said, where people can come even if they are worried about the virus or aren’t vaccinated.
“We’re trying to make it as accessible as possible,” Brown said.
West Concord Union, which is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, hopes to resume in-person worship services by September, Brown said. Until then, congregants will continue to spread blankets and erect lawn chairs in the schoolyard every Sunday morning, or gather virtually if the weather doesn’t cooperate.
Temple Sinai in Brookline is also thinking of September for a return to full, in-person services, though the timing carries a special significance for the Reform Jewish synagogue: The High Holy Days of Judaism, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, occur in September this year.
Between now and then, the congregation will transition slowly from its current remote status, gradually allowing worshipers into the temple starting in July, said Rabbi Andrew Vogel. Yet even when services return to normal, Vogel anticipates offering livestreamed services for virtual attendees.
“Our goal is to make sure that nobody is excluded, that everybody is included,” he said.
The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center continues to limit capacity for in-person worship to accommodate social distancing while livestreaming services. The center, which is the largest mosque in New England, is also requiring visitors to wear masks as they pray, said executive director Delizia Bouafi.
“We kind of kept a little bit more of a conservative approach because of the fact that we are directly located in an underserved area, and the pandemic overall has really hit the community quite hard,” she said.
Another reason for the center’s caution is the congregation’s relatively low vaccination rate. She estimated that roughly 30 to 40 percent of regular worshipers have been vaccinated so far, but she’s hoping to boost that with an outreach effort supported by a recent grant from the Boston Public Health Commission.
“We’re trying to incorporate that to really drive the message home to the congregation and just say, ‘Listen, we need everybody to get vaccinated so we can reopen the doors,’” she said.
The biggest obstacle to vaccinating worshipers at the center, Bouafi said, is misinformation about the shots. To counter this, the center plans to use the city funds for in-person outreach, along with testimony from Muslim doctors and nurses who pray at the center.
The mosque has other challenges, too. Despite the increased support of some patrons, the center saw a drop in donations during the pandemic. On top of that, Bouafi said, she’s running the ship with a “skeleton-tight crew.”
“I need to ensure that, if I’m going to open the doors and go back to this new normal,” she said, “that we have the right number of people on staff covering all the areas that need to be covered.”
Bouafi is not the only religious leader contemplating what a “new normal” might look like. The Rev. Carrington Moore, program director for the Massachusetts Council of Churches and an associate pastor at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain, sees a future for virtual ministry so as long as it “meets the needs” of believers.
“Things may never be the same again,” Moore said. “We’re adjusting to try to figure out what can work best so that people can feel like they are in beloved community again, and for people to feel safe in the midst of COVID.”
At St. Mary’s, Harrington said he has seen the number of returning parishioners climb each week, including some who haven’t attended Mass in person since March 2020. Asked if he was worried about parishioners not coming back for good, Harrington replied, “Of course,” but quickly shifted to present a brighter outlook.
“We’re just going to keep reaching out,” he said. “We just have to hope.”
Jack Lyons can be reached at email@example.com.