ELKO – Sunday mornings are not what they used to be.
For the past two months, churches in Nevada have been conducting virtual services in response to state directives resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.
“Although I cannot and will not say that places of worship should be closed, I strongly urge our faith leaders to find ways to deliver to your congregation without bringing them together in person,” said Gov. Steve Sisolak on March 17. It was a plea he would formalize three weeks later in a directive banning in-person worship services with 10 or more people.
Since then, many churches have turned to the internet, utilizing accessible, inexpensive or free platforms to broadcast Sunday morning services live on social media, in an uploaded video to YouTube, or through the Zoom meeting application.
Elko First Presbyterian Pastor LaVonne Alexander said since the church sanctuary closed in March she has been working from her laptop to keep her congregation together through YouTube and Facebook.
“I do the essentials of worship, all the prayers, sermons and scriptures,” she said. “We don’t have music.”
On Sundays, she uploads morning worship. During the week, she adds 10-minute devotions to the church’s YouTube channel. Bible studies are conducted on Zoom.
“That’s the best we can do,” Alexander said.
Churches statewide have been on a rollercoaster since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Days before Easter Sunday, Sisolak banned drive-thru services for nearly a month. He lifted the ban on May 1 but has not allowed in-person services to resume.
Alexander said she and the church leadership planned a social distance service for May 17 when restrictions were expected to be relaxed by May 15.
“We put in place the requirements and restrictions,” she explained. Parishioners wearing a mask would be seated sparingly throughout the church’s sanctuary. One person would be designated to sanitize the restroom after each use, and the meet-and-greet was removed from the service.
“We tried to make as little contact [as possible]. No touching,” Alexander said. “But the governor didn’t change his view.”
Approximately 190 pastors statewide signed a petition this month asking Sisolak to reconsider his stance, and pointing out how churches have “closely flowed government orders, prepared comprehensive safety plans, and otherwise complied with all the social distancing guidelines.”
“Here in Nevada, there is no evidence that houses of worship have in any way contributed to the spread of COVID-19,” the petition stated. “Prohibiting in-person church services is not necessary given the reasonable steps we have all taken to protect our congregations and the communities we serve.”
The petition cited the need for churches to host regular services “for spiritual care and comfort …”
“We don’t assume you have approved such restrictive orders regarding church gatherings with a specific animus toward our churches and our vital role in society, but your orders have sent an unfortunate message to us and the people of the State of Nevada that churches and church leaders can’t be trusted to take the steps necessary to protect our congregations and the communities we serve …”
Three local churches signed the petition, including the Bridge Church, Calvary Baptist Church, and Christ Community Church.
“In Phase 1, there was no rational basis not to include churches,” said Tim Royal, the lead pastor of the Bridge Church in Spring Creek. “We are no different than a restaurant with a certain capacity. We’re not serving food. We have a large space. We have the ability to go to 50%. We posed that to the governor, and we were basically ignored.”
In a press conference on May 15, Sisolak responded to a question about the petition from a KOLO-TV news reporter.
“(Churches) can clearly have services in the cars and parking lots. I know a lot of them have done that,” Sisolak said. “If they can come forth with a plan to have outdoor services, that’s fine. We’re looking at options that might be available, but Phase 1 is what it is right now, and we’re not going to move anything in Phase 1.”
Some Nevada churches may reopen soon, after President Trump on Friday called them “essential” and said governors should allow them to reopen immediately. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines for how to do it safely.
“I’m glad to see the president is recognizing the churches are essential,” said Royal.
Religious freedom “has been called the first freedom,” he said. “It was the reason most of the original colonists arrived in this country to start with.”
Alexander said Friday she has not yet had a chance to review the CDC guidelines.
She said leading her church through the pandemic has proven to be challenging. Much of her congregation is older, and she has been unable to visit them at Highland Manor or visit them at home.
Getting her older parishioners online is not easy because some don’t have an internet connection.
Although she makes phone calls to check in with people, Alexander said she misses the one-on-one interaction.
“I’m a homebody, but I miss my people,” she said. “I miss connecting, and who doesn’t want a hug at this point in their lives?”
“Everybody, to the best of my understanding, is hanging in there and doing the best they can,” Alexander said, adding she wished people could look forward to a specific date when life could return to normal.
“It’s the uncertainty that provides the level of anxiety that we are all living under.”
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