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Religious leaders: York County's faithful 'distanced' out of love — not because they had to

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

Some local houses of worship began reopening Sunday, the first weekend since York County moved to the less-restrictive yellow phase of the state's reopening process.

However, they actually were among the few entities that didn't have to shut down under Gov. Tom Wolf's plan to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Even with that exemption, many shifted services to virtual conference formats and other creative methods to continue worship.

That's because safety is an integral part of religion itself, said Rev. Eric Hillegas of St. John Episcopal Church in York City.

"It's part of our love of God and love of neighbor," Hillegas said. "The great summary of our faith by Jesus is love God, and love our neighbor. This is one way we're trying to do both of those together.

More:For Muslims in central Pa., Ramadan won't be the same this year

More:Coronavirus pandemic: Here's what York County's data looks like

Like other churches, mosques and synagogues, Hillegas has utilized virtual conference calls amid the coronavirus outbreak to provide the church's services.

The church also makes personal phone calls to parishioners, he said.

Even though it's "not perfect," he said, roughly 75% of those who had previously attended in-person services have joined the updated worship platforms.

Catholic churches have utilized similar methods, said Rachel Bryson, spokesperson for the The Diocese of Harrisburg. 

"We have seen drive-thru confessions and Eucharistic Adoration, live-streamed talk and cooking shows from our pastors, and many more creative means of continuing to connect with the faithful during the pandemic," Bryson said.

On Sunday, at least two churches in York County — Genesis Church in North Codorus Township and Countryside Fellowship Church in Dover Township —  decided to open their doors for the first time since the outbreak began.

Bob Tome, pastor at Genesis Church, said he decided to resume in-person services to provide relief to residents who may have struggled without the intimate church experience they had been accustomed to.

“I thought about people who do struggle with loneliness, isolation. They maybe lost their job and have a lot of other things going on," Tome said. "How can we care for them?

The church observed social distancing practices by requiring masks  and assigning seats with at least 6 feet between families, according to Tome.

Ray Newlin, pastor at Countryside Fellowship, said his church's relatively small congregation and the apparent reduction in the spread of the coronavirus played into his decision to fully reopen.

"Everybody seems pretty comfortable," he said.

In early April, Wolf, along with religious leaders throughout the state, released guidelines explaining potential ways to worship more safely amid the pandemic that has taken more than 5,100 lives in Pennsylvania.

But it never explicitly ordered places of worship to close.

"That said, religious leaders are encouraged to find alternatives to in-person gatherings and to avoid endangering their congregants, Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said.

Those suggestions included using technology to fill in the gaps while pews remained empty.

Pastor Ray Newlin leads worshipers as they take part in the first church service at Countryside Fellowship Church in Dover, Sunday, May 24, 2020,  since the coronavirus shutdown several weeks ago.
John A. Pavoncello photo

 Hadee Mosque, part of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA, has about 400 members from central Pennsylvania, including York County. It had to make similar adjustments for Ramadan.

Traditionally, Muslims gather for a communal meal to open the fast. But this year community members celebrated in isolation, with the mosque canceling communal prayers and asking worshipers to stay at home.

Once Ramadan is over, Muslims on Sunday were to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, when they will break their monthlong fast.

Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA, an international Muslim organization, recently provided members with guidance on how to conduct and lead an Eidal-al-Fitr service from their homes. 

"Though the Community is unable to open their mosques for Eid  prayer, its members will reflect with gratitude on all that it has learned during this Ramadan through service to humanity," according to a Friday news release.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, states have varied in how they handle the pandemic in faith communities.

Some states, such as Virginia and Maryland, have gone further than Pennsylvania. Those states  required places of worship to have no more than 10 people attending services.

In Pennsylvania, for counties under the yellow phase of reopening, there are no limitations on churches, but gatherings of more then 25 people are prohibited.

On Friday, President Donald Trump — who has a strong evangelical base — called for churches to completely reopen throughout the country, NPR has reported.

He also said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released new guidelines to do so safely.

"These are places that hold our society together," Trump said.

Still, some faith organizations have followed Wolf's slow, measured approach rather than the president's calls to swiftly reopen.

Worshipers take part in the first in-church service in weeks at Genesis Church in Seven Valleys, Sunday, May 24, 2020. About 100 people attended the service out of the normal 800-1000 before the coronavirus shutdown.
John A. Pavoncello photo

On April 24, The Pennsylvania Council of Churches wrote a letter to the governor and his administration, noting it would welcome collaboration to brainstorm how churches can safely reopen going forward.

"We are grateful that you have chosen a thoughtful and prudent path in response to this pressure," the letter read.

As of Tuesday, York County had reported 943 cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, the Pennsylvania Department of Health has reported. Statewide, there have been 68,637 positive cases

York County has had 22 virus deaths. With a population of 448,273, that represents 4.9 deaths per 100,000 residents.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.