Pastors are scrambling to decide whether to hold Christmas Eve services
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The omicron surge could hardly have come at a worse time for churches. Typically, half of all Americans attend Christmas Eve services. Most congregations had returned to in-person worship and are now scrambling to figure out what to do. St. John the Divine in New York is going entirely online. The National Cathedral in D.C. has canceled some holiday services. Deena Prichep reports.
DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Hour by hour, pastors around the country are posting videos like these about Christmas Eve plans.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I come to you with a very hard message. Last night, your...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Our Sunday worship service for December 26 will be online only. We encourage you to gather safely.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm recording this update from home because I woke up this morning with a little bit of a cough. Now...
PRICHEP: The Presbyterian Church in Leonia, N.J., had been pretty lucky when it came to COVID until two weeks ago.
LEAH FOWLER: The family that lit the advent candles that week following their candle lighting got sick.
PRICHEP: Leah Fowler is the pastor.
FOWLER: Three days later, we find out that the music director's son tested positive. And as I told my church yesterday, just like Mary and Joseph headed to Bethlehem not quite sure where they would end up, we're kind of in that situation.
PRICHEP: The problem is that the sorts of things people come seeking on Christmas Eve - shoulder-to-shoulder fellowship, singing "Joy To The World" at the top of your voice - are the very things that can spread COVID-19. The Supreme Court has ruled government can't tell churches to close, which means congregations have to make their own calls.
FOWLER: We may be here. We may be entirely virtual. But no matter what happens, Jesus will be born. And they all responded, amen.
PRICHEP: Fowler's church ultimately decided to take the virtual path to Bethlehem. Others are limiting services, moving outdoors. Senior Pastor John Marshall at First Baptist Church in Plainfield, Ind., says it's a hard call.
JOHN MARSHALL: We know that if we start to make changes by we're going to only allow certain numbers, we're going to change our location of seating, that's going to be very difficult for our community to respond quickly to and favorably to.
PRICHEP: Marshall's congregation is adding more chairs to allow social distancing and urging people to mask up. But not everybody does.
MARSHALL: What we are constantly expressing is be careful. Be kind. Be cautious. Do what you can to slow it down.
ROCHELLE STACKHOUSE: People are tired. I hear it. I mean, part of me wants to say, can you imagine how tired of this God must be?
PRICHEP: Rochelle Stackhouse is pastor of the Buckingham Congregational United Church of Christ in Glastonbury, Conn. Their Christmas Eve service will be masked and distanced. And already, they've had to replace one reader whose daughter tested positive. Stackhouse is not taking this lightly.
STACKHOUSE: My great-grandmother died in the flu outbreak of 1919, 1920.
PRICHEP: And she worries the lessons of that time have been lost.
STACKHOUSE: We can't forget. We can't forget this. We have to figure out how this is calling us to live differently than we do.
PRICHEP: The division this country and congregations have been facing is part of the story of this pandemic. First Baptist John Marshall says the lack of love and kindness is especially hard to see at Christmas.
MARSHALL: Even during wars between major nations, battles have ceased. There's been a stop, a pause to come together to focus on Christ. And I don't see that happening now.
PRICHEP: Marshall plans to proclaim, from behind his mask, that Jesus was also born into a time of challenges and oppression and uncertainty. And he hopes, whether in-person or online, people respond as they would to a baby just born into this world - with love.
For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.