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Holy hush ends but children, the elderly, ailing to stay home Churches get in gear to comply with


AFTER two months of an almost holy hush, a number of churches will this weekend resume corporate worship as the Government relaxes gathering restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 crisis. But for some, children, the aged and ailing will not be in attendance.

Pastor of the Richmond Park Church of the Nazarene Andrew Henry told the Jamaica Observer yesterday that his assembly, which has a membership of 235, had reduced meeting sizes to the required 10 people but had not closed its doors.

“We still had the services. The doors were open every Sunday morning but we kept the guidelines — so 10 persons and social distancing was observed. The 10 persons were largely the technical persons and we streamed live the services to the others,” he said.

With the new measures announced for the 14-day trial — which are for churches to do temperature checks on everyone entering the sanctuary, have sanitisation stations at entrances, maintain social distancing of six feet, have members of the congregation wearing masks, and not assembling choirs — Henry said his membership will be meeting in groups of 45, inclusive of the 10 technical individuals.

“As of [today], our members will call in through a specific number and register their interest, and that will determine if we should start with two services or with one for Sunday coming. We will assess, after the two weeks,” he told the Observer.

Henry said devices for temperature screening have been procured and ushers will be trained online by health workers who attend the assembly, then in a hands-on session on Saturday.

As for members who are elderly, he said: “What we have been doing in the period is that we had stewards and Bible school students who kept in touch with the seniors. The bulletin we are putting out [today] is that they still will not be allowed to come and we will keep in touch with them via the same medium we have been using.”

Children, too, will not be in church.

“We are not allowing the children to come in these two weeks; we are not allowing anyone with pre-existing conditions to come. If a person comes with an elevated temperature, nurses will be on duty [and] they will be put in a cool area and checked again; if it remains the same, they will be told where to get public health attention but they will not be allowed to remain on the compound,” he said.

In the meantime, the pastor said the five-day window given by the Government for churches to organise themselves is not sufficient.

“We would have loved for a longer time; we could do with some more time but we also understand that the Government is trying to balance the thing, and we thank God for this opportunity, but we will work with it,” Henry said.

The new measures were announced by Prime Minister Andrew Holness on Monday.

In a release on Tuesday, the Reverend Howard Gregory, archbishop of the West Indies and bishop of Jamaica for the Anglican Diocese, said while the protocols for the experimental resumption of congregational worship was welcomed, not all churches would be able to resume corporate worship on Sunday.

He noted that there “will be varying responses from congregants to the initiative, as some are anxious to return to congregational worship while there are others who take a more cautious approach”.

“We must also bear in mind the age range of our congregations, taking note of the fact that a significant portion falls within the most vulnerable groups on the basis of age or having been diagnosed with one or several co-morbidities,” the archbishop said, adding, “We need to allow congregants to exercise a sense of responsibility in terms of their level of participation in the communal life of the congregation at this time.”

He also said it may not be possible for some congregations to resume corporate worship on May 17 as there are some provisions and conditionalities that may be difficult to satisfy in the short term.

Those, he said, included the devices for temperature checks. Furthermore, he said the level of sanitisation required goes beyond having hand sanitisers and soap available.

In reiterating the cautions which apply to the sacraments observed by the church, the archbishop said: “This is neither the time nor the occasion on which to embark on personal excursus in terms of the interpretation and applications of the protocols, as they not only have implications for the life or death of persons, but it reflects on our sense of integrity and how we commit to a process which is experimental and has implications for our sisters and brothers and the whole people of God.”

Bishop Conrad H Pitkin, chairman of the Jamaica Umbrella Groups of Churches (JUGC) — which comprises the Jamaica Council of Churches, Jamaica Association of Full Gospel Churches, Jamaica Evangelical Alliance, Jamaica Pentecostal Union (Apostolic), Church of God in Jamaica, Independent Churches of Jamaica, and the Jamaica Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and represents 96 per cent of the island’s Christian community — on Tuesday told the Observer, “We are going to be open.”

He said the JUGC had had prior knowledge about the decision, as the Government had engaged it in talks last weekend.

“We are at one when it comes to the physical distancing and so it is for the churches to map out their sanctuaries to know exactly how many persons can be in any one service, and some churches may need to do more than one service depending on the size of the congregation.

“I have been receiving calls to clarify some of these issues. We believe that the churches with air-condition[ing] units should turn them off and allow the place to be properly ventilated. We agree with the sanitising of the sanctuary in-between services and all the other recommendations and protocols in place; we are going to be abiding by them,” the JUGC head said.

On the matter of whether affiliated church leaders have been hesitant about the measures, Bishop Pitkin said no qualms have been expressed.

“We understand that wherever there is quarantine, then those churches will not be able to engage; for instance, in the communities in St Mary,” he added.

Bishop Pitkin said, too, that church leaders are optimistic.

“We are grateful for what is happening. We could have been at a different stage today but the curve is flattening beautifully, and we want to keep it that way,” he said. “We salute our Government but we also thank God for the wisdom given for us to proceed and for where we are today.”

Meanwhile, head of the Jamaica Baptist Union the Reverend Karl Johnson said it had never issued a close order since the COVID-19 crisis.

“What we did was to encourage and urge our ministers to exercise the kind of responsible position that would affirm life, protect their neighbours as a part of our Christian commitment… So it is not a case where we said, ‘Love your life more than you love the other person’s’. It is because you love them why you would be careful and cautious,” he explained. “So our survey of what has happened has heartened us and so, even those whose doors remained open, they stuck to the numbers guidelines…” Johnson shared.

He said, too, that people tend to forget that a number of churches, and Baptist churches in general, are small member churches.

“We get a little carried away with the mega-churches on the television and forget that even in the great America, their average church size is about 50. So quite a bit of our churches are small member churches and so it was not hard to have multiple services on a Sunday in some locations. I was just impressed with how persons self-regulated,” the JBU head said, adding, “We were out of the gate from about March 3, long before Jamaica started to panic to minimise some of the practices — the hugs — long before.

“Truth be told, we could have maintained physical distancing without certain drastic, across-the-board measures, but we understood that it would have been hard and we supported the spirit of the regulations,” he added.

Meanwhile, deputy chairman of the Jamaica Pentecostal Union Apostolic Bishop Norman Nunes said on Tuesday that the body had not yet had a detailed discussion on the measures, but said there was no dissent with the method taken by the Government.

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