Religious Service: Is It Safe?

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This is our new weekly pandemic feature: Is It Safe, where we ask you what you’re comfortable with in the age of Covid-19, and what you aren’t. Read our primer to understand the concept. And email me your thoughts at williamfleitch@yahoo.com. This week: Religious services.

The first thing my mother wanted to do outside of the home when the pandemic hit was go to mass. She could order in groceries, she could have pizza delivered, she could even hold off on hugging her grandchildren. (For a while.) But she needed to get to mass. That was her constant. It was probably what she needed more than anything else.

Tens of millions of Americans have had to answer this question: Are they ready to go back to worship services? Is it wrong for them to be open at all? What are the arguments for going to service? What are the arguments against it? Last week, I asked for your thoughts on the matter. Having read through all of them, these are the best arguments for each side.

PRO

  1. Has there ever been a time we’ve needed spiritual guidance more than right now? This one is rather self-explanatory, no? “We go to church to give us direction, to get us through difficult times,” one respondent wrote. “I’ve never been through anything more difficult than this.” Our places of worship exist to help us, to give us desperately needed assistance. Taking that away, taking us out of our routine in yet another way, isn’t just difficult … for many, it’s downright dangerous.
  2. There are many religious services following social distancing and masking guidelines. If you’re only looking at some particularly irresponsible megachurches you come across on social media, you might think that all religious services are free-for-alls, no masks, no distancing, no nothing. That is far from the case. Many places of worship across the country are open at limited capacity, or outdoors, or enforcing strict compliance to social distancing recommendations. I particularly enjoy this New Orleans church’s amusing signs to avoid particular pews. It can be done.
  3. This is not a time to be estranged from your community. We are all so isolated right now, and the need to be connected to the people around us — particularly during this politically polarized time — is more important than ever. Neighbors are the livelihood of this country, and there is no better place to be with your neighbors than your place of worship. “If we’re distanced, church is a common good here,” one respondent said. “It’s even helping feed people. You can’t shut that down. We’re going to need our churches even more when this is over.”

CON

  1. If you’re looking for superspreading events, worship services have it all. They’re typically indoors. People are crammed together. They are singing very loudly. This was one of the first things we learned in this pandemic. How have you already forgotten?
  2. American megachurches, in particular, have been, in many cases, actively hostile to social distancing and masking measures. And, suffice it to say, some of their strategies at containing Covid-19 have proven perhaps less than successful.

It is not fair to have Kenneth Copeland stand in for American megachurches. It is also not not fair. Also there is this guy. And a lot of guys!

3. If schools aren’t open, how can churches be? Many schools across the country are open, but many are not, and New York City, the largest public school district in the country, appears to be very close to shutting down. Churches are valuable parts of any community, but … more valuable than schools? You can worship whatever/whoever you worship in your own home, but it’s increasingly clear that children cannot be taught at home the way they are in classrooms. The goal is to reduce community spread. You will still be able to worship when this is over.

It’s a difficult question. And one made even more so by the recent spike in cases. Is it safe? I don’t know the answer. It’s an excellent question. Which is why, after all, I am asking.

Will Leitch will be writing multiple pieces a week for Medium. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family, and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel “How Lucky,” released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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