The Maine Council of Churches issued a public plea Tuesday calling on congregations statewide to do their part to help reduce the current COVID-19 surge by returning to virtual-only worship services.

The council also asked pastors to preach clear messages about the importance of vaccination, booster shots and masking, and to offer church buildings as sites for vaccine clinics.

The Rev. Kerry R. Mansir delivers a livestreamed sermon on April 26, 2020, from the altar at Christ Church Episcopal on the Gardiner Common. The Maine Council of Churches is now urging congregations to go back to virtual-only services. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

The council took action to show support for front-line health care workers who have been overwhelmed by a global pandemic now in its third year. How most churches will respond to the council’s requests remains to be seen, although the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland said it will continue to hold in-person Masses under protocols that have proven effective so far.

“Churches must do their part to support beleaguered and exhausted nurses, doctors and health care staff struggling to meet the overwhelming demand for care caused by the pandemic and the surge of infection and hospitalization among the unvaccinated,” the council said in a statement issued Tuesday.

The council referred to a report from the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which said the exhaustion and trauma that health care workers have endured during the pandemic have taken a serious toll on the mental and physical health of doctors, nurses and other hospital staff.

“This isn’t about sending care packages or Hallmark cards – though those are certainly nice,” said the Rev. Jane Field, executive director of the council. “It’s about making the difficult and necessary decision to return to virtual online worship services only and refrain from in-person church gatherings during this deadly surge.”

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The council is governed by a board of directors and represents seven denominations: Episcopal, Unitarian-Universalist, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, Presbyterian, Evangelical Lutheran and Quaker.

Field said many churches have been trying to do the right thing by offering a hybrid of both in-person and virtual services.

“So we’re asking them to take a step back and only do virtual services, especially through this post-holiday surge,” Field said.

‘LOVE THY NEIGHBOR’

Field said pastors also should be sending a clear message that getting vaccinated and boosted, and wearing masks when in public, are “moral imperatives” for anyone who follows the commandment to “Love thy neighbor.”

And by hosting pop-up vaccine clinics, faith communities can “provide effective and meaningful relief and support to weary and overrun hospitals and their staff,” Field said.

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The council urged Maine congregations to apply to host a community vaccination clinic through the state’s vaccine web portal at www.maine.gov/covid19/vaccines.

The council also urged the faithful to pray for health care workers on the front lines.

“But this is one of those times that prayers are not enough,” Field said. “It’s a time for sacrificial action. It’s a time to pray as if everything depends on God and act as if everything depends on us.”

At Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland, church leaders will meet this week to consider the council’s requests, said the Rev. Alyssa Lodewick, church pastor and president of the council’s board of directors.

Since October, Lodewick’s congregation has been livestreaming in-person worship services from the church sanctuary, where everyone must wear masks and be socially distanced, she said. Before that, the congregation held services outdoors at the church or with all members at home via Zoom – what Lodewick called a “digital sanctuary.”

“I’m not sure how our church council will respond,” Lodewick said. “It’s a very significant conversation to be had. We all recognize how important it is for people to gather in spirit, whether in person or digitally. We also recognize that we are part of the wider community.”

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DIOCESE TO KEEP CHURCHES OPEN

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, which oversees 141 churches in 48 parishes across Maine, will keep its churches open and continue to hold in-person Masses under safety protocols that have proven successful so far, spokesman Dave Guthro said.

For the last six months, the diocese has strongly recommended that everyone attending Masses wears masks, whether or not they are vaccinated, Guthro said. Live-streamed Masses also are offered at parishes across the state for those who are uncomfortable with participating in person.

“During the Christmas season, which runs through Jan. 9, the large majority of Catholics attending Masses have been wearing masks, which is great to see,” Guthro said. “The diocese has complied with (government) protocols and rules put into place and, in many cases, has enforced even stricter safeguards in our churches to ensure the safety of parishioners and the wider community.”

Guthro noted that more than 30,000 Masses have been celebrated statewide over the last 18 months and no COVID-19 outbreaks have been traced to a Catholic church in Maine. In addition, Catholic schools in Maine have remained open to in-person learning throughout the pandemic because they adhere to the same policies.

“But not having daily and weekly access to the Eucharist, the very presence of Christ at Catholic Masses, would be a great hardship for thousands of Mainers,” Guthro said. “It is also the Catholic Church’s responsibility to be open for the many health care workers and other first responders who need the spiritual comfort and support at this incredibly difficult time in history.”

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Guthro said Bishop Robert Deeley has consistently promoted vaccinations, saying “we must thank God for the scientific advancement and dedication of those in the medical field that have led to these lifesaving vaccines during a global pandemic. … Receiving a vaccine is not just for one’s own health, but for the health and safety of those around you.”

Moreover, Guthro said, the diocese has opened church buildings for vaccination clinics when asked, including a five-month clinic at St. Christopher Church in York, where over 15,000 doses were given.

Green Memorial AME Zion Church in Portland will have no trouble complying with the council’s request to hold virtual-only services. The church on Munjoy Hill, which seats about 150 people, has yet to resume in-person services since the pandemic started.

SUSCEPTIBLE CONGREGATION

“I pastor a historically African American congregation that I believe is susceptible (to COVID-19) because of age, race and underlying conditions,” said the Rev. Kenneth Lewis. “I follow the science and the evidence and I made my decision with the full support of church leadership.”

Lewis records weekly sermons and produces services that are posted on Facebook each Sunday, which has allowed the church to reach as many as 1,000 viewers some weekends. He also has stepped up ministry outside the church by holding Bible classes, Sunday school and other meetings via Zoom.

Lewis said the council is likely to have more difficulty winning support for virtual-only worship services from congregations that are adamant about gathering in person or don’t have the technical knowledge or resources to hold services online.

He said he encourages people to get vaccinated by actively providing accurate information to counteract misinformation, but his church building isn’t suitable for a vaccination clinic. He looks forward to the day when his congregation will be able to worship together again.

“Church is not a building. It’s a relationship,” Lewis said. “We will struggle through this together in the safest possible way. But even with our high vaccination rates, we still have breakthrough cases, and I am not at all comfortable with being in the position of screening people at the door. So for now, we keep the door closed.”


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