Closed churches preach safety

Deadly COVID-19 out­break in March keeps many city ser­vices on­line-only

Calgary Herald - - FRONT PAGE - ALANNA SMITH

Cal­gary’s Liv­ing Spirit United Church lost con­gre­gants of their own to COVID-19 af­ter a “small church gath­er­ing” left dozens in­fected and two dead.

It’s a “dev­as­tat­ing” sit­u­a­tion no place of wor­ship wants to re­peat and is why Knox United Church will con­tinue to keep its doors closed, de­spite the gov­ern­ment’s ap­proval to re­open with no limit on guests.

“That can­not be our story,” said Rev. Greg Glatz with the down­town church.

Knox United is one of many places of wor­ship in Cal­gary that re­fuses to re­sume in-per­son ser­vices in an ef­fort to pro­tect its parish­ioners as the threat of COVID-19 re­mains.

In early June, un­der Stage 1 of Al­berta’s re­launch plan, faith­based fa­cil­i­ties were given the green light to re­open with a 50-per­son limit. Less than two weeks later, the prov­ince lifted the cap on vis­i­tors so long as phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing mea­sures were in place un­der Stage 2 of the eco­nomic strat­egy.

Rev. Tracy Robert­son, with St. Thomas United Church in north­west Cal­gary, said the novel coro­n­avirus is still too great a risk as new cases crop up daily in the prov­ince.

“This deadly virus is not yet un­der con­trol,” said Robert­son.

“We are an af­firm­ing and in­clu­sive church and the cur­rent re­stric­tions don’t fit our val­ues and phi­los­o­phy of open hands, open hearts and open minds with space (and) peo­ple re­stric­tions cou­pled with not be­ing able to sing.”

Un­der pro­vin­cial guide­lines, or­ga­ni­za­tions are asked to dis­con­tinue any ac­tiv­ity that in­creases the risk of COVID-19 — in­clud­ing singing. Robert­son said they’re a “very mu­si­cal com­mu­nity” and not be­ing able to do that takes away from the church’s char­ac­ter.

In­stead, con­gre­gants are tak­ing to the vir­tual pew dur­ing on­line wor­ship ser­vices, and will soon be able to join Zoom calls for group ses­sions and so­cial mee­tups.

Robert­son said it’s un­clear when they will re­open to the pub­lic but will re­assess the sit­u­a­tion in late Au­gust.

“Peo­ple’s safety is our ut­most pri­or­ity,” she said.

“Be­sides, this gives us more of what we should be do­ing and that is be­ing the church out­side the walls of a church build­ing. It al­lows us to live out our faith in the world.”

Sim­i­larly, Knox United is of­fer­ing its Sun­day and mid-week ser­vices on­line as the pan­demic drags on.

Glatz said a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of their con­gre­ga­tion is at risk of COVID-19, but re­gard­less of age or sit­u­a­tion, the church’s pri­or­ity is to pro­tect the safety of all.

“Peo­ple who are in the vul­ner­a­ble group at Knox — maybe half of them — would love to get back in the build­ing. They’re not re­ally wor­ried, so we need to be wor­ried on be­half of ev­ery­one,” he said.

Their de­ci­sion “isn’t pop­u­lar” with the en­tire con­gre­ga­tion but the pos­si­bil­ity of fac­ing the same heart­break as their sis­ter church Liv­ing Spirit United is too great.

Knox United has formed a work­ing group to plan for a multi-phased and grad­ual re­open­ing.

They will likely start with the ad­mis­sion of small church or com­mu­nity groups, then mid-week ser­vice with a small num­ber of con­gre­gants and, lastly, the re­sump­tion of Sun­day wor­ship ser­vice.

“It’s not the space in the build­ing. We can hold 800 peo­ple but prob­a­bly only be­tween 100 and 200 would show up, so we can eas­ily phys­i­cally dis­tance those folks. It’s

It’s not the space in the build­ing … It’s the bot­tle­necks com­ing in through the doors or hall­ways.

the bot­tle­necks com­ing in through the doors or hall­ways,” said Glatz, adding it would be hard to re­quire peo­ple not to hug.

There’s no def­i­nite date Knox United will re­open.

They are tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion data from across North Amer­ica to un­der­stand po­ten­tial risks of COVID-19 ex­po­sure in wor­ship halls that have wel­comed back guests, alongside Al­berta’s daily num­bers.

Other churches have care­fully em­braced the prov­ince’s lifted re­stric­tions.

The Ro­man Catholic Dio­cese of Cal­gary, for ex­am­ple, said each par­ish in the city will de­ter­mine the max­i­mum num­bers of at­ten­dees al­lowed for week­day and Sun­day masses. They are ask­ing guests to wear a mask when it is not pos­si­ble to phys­i­cally dis­tance, such as re­ceiv­ing Holy Com­mu­nion.

GAVIN YOUNG

Fa­ther Robert Ben­gry greets parish­ioners as they ar­rive for mass at St. John the Evan­ge­list Ro­man Catholic Church in In­gle­wood on Sun­day. Though places of wor­ship have been given the green light to re­open in Al­berta, many are keep­ing their doors closed over safety con­cerns.

GAVIN YOUNG

Parish­ioners main­tain phys­i­cal dis­tance alone and in fam­ily groups at St. John the Evan­ge­list Ro­man Catholic Church on Sun­day.

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