Local churches opt for online or drive-in services or limit size of gatherings for safety in the pandemic

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - The Rev. Charles Zach, pastor at St. Henry Catholic Church, in the makeshift sanctuary set up to make live streaming services easier.

Sunday mornings and most weeknights, the expansive parking lot of Grace Community Church is alive with activity as cars maneuver into parking spots and church members greet one another. But on a recent Sunday morning the lot was deserted.

Grace is closed, along with other East County churches. The coronavirus pandemic has drastically transformed worship for all of the faithful in the Gresham area and elsewhere.

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - On a recent Sunday morning at Grace Community Church, the normally busy parking lot was quiet and empty.

Because of the pandemic, most churches have moved their services online. Some are holding drive-in services. Some are allowing the permissible number of worshippers in the church and live streaming to others.

"I miss church. I've been a Unitarian Universalist my who life and it's important to me," said Kathie Loveall, who normally attends Gresham's Eastrose Fellowship Unitarian Universalist.

Loveall commends the job the group is doing to produce meaningful worship services online, but joins many other church goers and said the online services "are not working very well for me."

The coronavirus that has shuttered churches has killed more than 325 Oregonians and put restrictions on normal life and activities since mid-March. Gatherings of people are limited, people must wear masks or protective shields on their faces and remain at least 6 feet apart. School in the fall will probably be conducted online for at least several months.

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Greshams Metro Church of Christ has opted for a drive-in service for Sundays. Worshipers tune in to hear the service on an FM radio band.

St. Henry Catholic Church is still having two daily in-person Masses, one in Spanish and one in English. Parishioners must sign up in advice for one of the limited, in-person slots for Mass.

Those attending must wear face masks and sit in socially-distanced chairs carefully spaced for safety. There are no hymnals or Bibles. For safety's sake, congregants must bring their own from home.

The church takes people's temperatures as they enter and parishioners have to leave their information for potential contact tracing.

In order to make it easier to livestream the service, St. Henry has set up a community room called The Fireside Room, to use as a temporary sanctuary. Mass is shown on a screen in nearby room for any overflow worshipers and live streamed for people who stay home. It is also posted on the church's web page later.

After the service, there is drive-thru communion and those watching at home can drive to the church at 346 N.W. First St. to receive the sacrament from their cars.

"It's a lot of extra work to accomplish this," said the Rev. Charles Zach, pastor at St. Henry.

"It's taking a lot of creative imagination," he added.

St. Henry's livestream service draws between 40 and 90 folks during the week and 400 to 900 on Sundays.

"We can't count how many watched online later," Zach said.

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Grace Community Church Pastor Jay Messenger preaches from a remote location for the weekly online Sunday service.

Eastrose's minister, the Rev. Patti Pomerantz said about 30-40 folks log in to their online service and said "we try our best to stay as close to our regular service as possible."

Pomerantz said, "I don't think it's the same (as a regular service), but it helps."

Eastrose, at 1133 N.E. 181st Ave., mostly uses music professionally produced from other sources. After the service, there is a virtual coffee hour, where folks can chat and catch up.

Grace Community Church, 800 S.E. Hogan Road, is even going to have its Vacation Bible School online this year.

Normally drawing about 500 kids, this summer's Vacation Bible School packets can be picked up at a specific time at the church. Kids and their caregivers can tune in to online content and use the materials at home.

Pastor Jay Messenger hopes the kids will safely share the experience with neighborhood friends.

Grace's online services are very polished and feature pastors speaking from various locations including beside a river. The praise music is skillfully shot. Messenger applauds Grace's videographer, calling him "very gifted."

Grace also produced a daily morning encouragement video, but as the pandemic drags on, has cut that back to three days per week.

Metro Church of Christ, 1525 N.W. Division St., has opted for drive-in services. Cars pull in, allowing six feet of space between vehicles. The pastor is under a tent at the front of the parking lot. Worshipers tune in to an FM radio transmission and to listen to the 11 a.m. service on Sundays. Sheet music is posted online so people can sing along. Metro Church of Christ also has Bible study online.

Gresham area congregations are getting inventive in the ways they spiritually support members in these stressful times of high unemployment, spreading coronavirus and isolation.

One Eastrose member lost her husband recently. Unable to support and grieve with her in person, Eastrose organized a car parade past her home to let her know she was loved.

St. Henry started a phone tree to make sure parish members are all right and find out if they need assistance.

"Through it all, we ask 'how can we bring Christ to people who are isolated,'" said Zach. "We want everyone to stay healthy, hopeful and joyful in the Lord Jesus Christ."

St. Henry and other churches are still doing funerals, baptisms and other sacred rights.

Zach said some weddings have been postponed. St. Henry does decline if someone connected to the proposed service has been exposed to COVID-19. The church is also doing socially-distanced, masked confession.

Grace's Messenger said that the pandemic may have some lasting spiritual and social effects.

"I don't think any of us will take for granted our in-person community ever again. Some people are busy, and find themselves too busy for church. I think people may reevaluate their busy lives because they find the online community is lacking."

At the same time, he said the pandemic has brought home the oft-told truth that church is not a building.

"The church is more than just a large group gathering on Sunday or Saturday in a building," Messenger said. "The church has never been a building or weekly event. We've had to develop our community muscles during this time and I think that's a good thing."


Lending a helping hand

With the economy tanking because of the coronavirus restrictions, local churches are stepping up and boosting their community services such as free food for the hungry.

Grace Community Church, 800 S.E. Hogan Road, in March set up a resource page called "Grace Helping Grace" so folks could quickly find help if they face a financial or other crisis.

Pastor Jay Messenger said the page was most often used by people not connected to the church. Some of those tapping the resource are part of the East Gresham Elementary School community, which Grace has aided for years.

"We had one single mom whose washer/dryer died. We had some folks who were getting rid of one and she was back in business in a day or two," he said.

Messenger said the resource page helped connect people who were at high risk if they caught the coronavirus with volunteers willing to help out. Some needed someone to do their grocery shopping or do yard work.

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Volunteers distribute food boxes to those in need at St. Henry Catholic Church in a safe no-touch way.

Grace also has a robust food pantry program, as do other area churches.

Since the pandemic began, every Friday morning, St. Henry Catholic Church, 346 N.W. First St., gives out 1,000 "rather hefty" boxes of food, the Rev. Charles Zach said. Those in need drive through the parking lot and volunteers put the boxes directly into people's car trunks or back seats, with no touch delivery and proper social distancing.

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Volunteers at the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry at St. Henry Catholic Church momentarily break social distancing rules for a quick photo.

Before the pandemic, St. Henry's regular food panty allowed shoppers to come in and select what they need, but now, due to tight quarters that don't allow social distancing, shoppers have to tell a volunteer what they want and the volunteer shops for them. The regular table of diapers and baby supplies for those in need is in the parking lot for now.

East Hill Church, 539 N. Main Ave., also began distributing food boxes on Thursday mornings.

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Babies need diapers even in a pandemic and volunteers from St. Henry Catholic Church help struggling families with these necessities.

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