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Local houses of worship make plans to meet in person

Editor’s note: This story published on Friday incorrectly stated when First Baptist Church in Natchez will reopen. The church has revisited its original plans for reopening and has not made a decision about when the church will hold in-person worship services. The story has been corrected below. We regret the error and are glad to set the record straight.

NATCHEZ — Natchez churchgoers may have something to rejoice about in late June.

Most churches in and around Natchez have not met in person since late March due to the COVID-19 pandemic but that could change in late June.

During a Natchez COVID-19 Task Force meeting with members of the Ministerial Alliance last week, Task Force Chairman Dr. Lee England, an infectious disease expert, recommended that churches wait until June 21 to determine when to begin hold in-person worship services again.

England’s recommendation, based on his research on the COVID-19 pandemic, included the following points:

  • It can take up to 14 days to become ill once a person is infected.
  • The best margin of safety is to wait until June 21 to make the call on whether it is safe to resume some sort of limited in-house worship.
  • Follow up waves will occur and people might have to go back into isolation.
  • In the early part of April, Natchez was twice as active as Jackson per capita, even though as of last week Natchez had no patients on ventilators and Jackson was experiencing a surge.
  • Follow up waves could be severe enough that people would return to self-isolation voluntarily.
  • “The virus dictates everything. The virus will do what it wants to do and it won’t stop until it infects 65% of the population and then it will have a hard time infecting more people,” England said.

Gov. Tate Reeves ‘Safe Worship’ order

The recommendation to delay a decision on in-person meetings comes after Gov. Tate Reeves issued “Safe Worship” guidelines for in-person services last week.

According to the “Safe Worship” guidelines, churches can resume in-person worship services but must encourage use of masks and ensure hand sanitizers are readily accessible, consider limiting attendance at any one service and require space between groups, avoid passing offering plates or sharing microphones and replace choirs with soloists or “small ensembles” that are at least 6 feet apart.

Churches respond

Given the discrepancy between the governor’s order and the Natchez COVID-19 Task Force recommendation, individual churches are making their own decisions on when to resume in-person worship services.

The Rev. Joan Gandy, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Natchez who was on the COVID-19 Task Force call, sent a letter to her church members following the meeting.

“… I send love to you, thinking of how I have missed you during the many weeks that we have not been able to worship together in the sanctuary as we are accustomed to do,” Gandy writes. “The day is coming, however, when God will gather us all back into that space. It will be a glorious day of joy and celebration. …”

Gandy’s letter goes on to explain she was on the call with England and the task force.

“As certain social and business restrictions have been eased in Natchez recently, the virus could begin to spread again,” Gandy writes. “His (England’s) recommendation is that churches wait another four weeks to see what has happened as a result of eased restrictions. If churches begin to gather at the same time that new cases (not yet detected) begin to rise in the community, the chance of spreading the virus within the church gathering is more likely.”

Gandy later said that safety is her paramount concern before resuming in-person services.

“As much as we want to open for worship again, we feel that the most important thing is the safety and the security of our people,” Gandy said. “We want to do the right thing for each other and wait a few weeks. We’re going to continue to stream our church services of Facebook and YouTube as we begin to call people back together. The live streaming turned out to be a wonderful way to reach out to people.”

The Rev. Scott Thomas, pastor of St. Mary Basilica, said he does not plan to have in-person services until the first two weekends of June.

“For us the in-person service is important and beneficial to the Church,” Thomas said.

Once the church resumes in person services, Thomas said, St. Mary Basilica pews would be blocked off and parishioners would wear masks, move around less with adequate space between worshippers, and there will be no drinking of the wine after each other.

Bo Swilley, senior pastor at Community Chapel Church, said he met with the Guiding Counsel of Community Chapel Church and the church decided to begin worship services on June 7.

“I think its time to reopen again,” Swilley said.

Doug Broome, senior pastor of First Baptist Church, originally said the target date for his church to have in-person worship services is June 14. Broome said on Facebook recently that church leaders have since reconsidered when the church will reopen and will not make a decision until a later date.

Bishop Robert Cade, overseer at Word of Faith Ambassadors Worship Center, said he is not in a hurry to get back into the sanctuary but hopes to resume in-person services sometime in the month of June but has not yet set a date.

While some churches are planning to have in-person services in June, other churches decided to move their in-person service dates even further back.

The Rev. Melvin White, pastor of Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, said his church is not planning to resume in-person services until Aug. 2.

“I think that being in person gives you the opportunity to make contact with your members,” White said. “It’s good to have that in-person worship service. It is good when we assemble together and that is missing now.”

The Rev. Birdon Mitchell, pastor at Zion Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, said he is not sure when he is going to resume in-person services but hopes to resume in-person services soon.

“We are under the direction of our Bishop, and we have some guidelines that we have to follow before we can reopen,” Mitchell said. “We are going to continue to use social media until we can adhere to the protocol of the general church. I just ask our congregants to be patient while the church is trying to do things to make sure it is safe to re-enter. I’m hoping that people — not just at Zion Chapel but at all churches — will be patient.”

Bishop Stanley Searcy, pastor of New Hope The Vision Center did not return messages left seeking comment for this story. However, Searcy said in a Facebook Live video on May 26 that New Hope The Vision Center will reopen on June 7 for in-person services.

Gov. Tate Reeves’ “Safe to Worship” order includes the following requirements:

  • A more strict regiment of deep cleaning, including frequent sanitation of restrooms, doorknobs, counters, microphones and seats.
  • Encourage use of masks and ensure hand sanitizer is readily accessible.
  • Consider limiting attendance at any one service and requiring space between groups from the same household to avoid transmission of the virus.
  • Avoid passing offering plates or sharing and passing microphones.
  • Replace choirs with soloists or “small ensembles” that are at least 6 feet apart.
  • Don’t offer coffee stations or snack tables.
  • Post signs around entries requesting anyone who has been in contact with someone with the virus not come into the church.