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Services include 25 people or fewer and restrictions to prevent spread of virus.

PMG PHOTO: COREY BUCHANAN - Community of Hope Lutheran Church is begginning in-person services again this week.

After months of meeting on Zoom or watching services on Facebook or YouTube, local church congregants are beginning to return to their places of worship.

However, they will notice differences from services that took place before the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Even the regular interactions, six feet apart and masks, it limits the intimacy," said St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church rector Brendan Barnicle, who led the church's first in-person service in months last Sunday. "In some ways, there's greater intimacy in online services because you can feel closer to them than when you're in the church."

Along with St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church's reopening, Community of Hope Lutheran Church and St. Cyril's Catholic Church planned to begin in-person services this week while Meridian United Church of Christ will wait a few more weeks before deciding whether to take that step. Churches are allowed to host services with 25 people or fewer, per guidelines established by the State of Oregon for Phase 1 of reopening in Clackamas County. Many churches are also still offering live streaming of services.

Singing, a central church component, is one aspect affected by the pandemic.

During the first service, a St. Francis of Assisi soloist sang from another room in the church as an alternative to a church choir. Dana Eaton, the church administrator at Community of Hope, said that neither the adult nor children's choirs at the church would sing. Singing is said to be a common way the novel coronavirus spreads.

Another potential risk could be the passing of bread and wine during communion. Community of Hope has decided to hand out packages that include wafers and juice rather than passing out homemade bread and sharing wine and juice.

Attendees are also required to wear masks and maintain a distance from their fellow congregants, and those who are feeling sick are highly encouraged to stay home.

"A lot of people want fellowship and to be together again and to be in person. The main part is that people miss each other, but we're not encouraging hugging. We want to be protecting members too," Eaton said.

Considering the virus is said to spread much more rapidly indoors than outdoors, Eaton also said Community of Hope is doing one weekly outdoor service a week all summer. Barnicle said that could be a possibility for his church at some point.

Both Eaton and Barnicle said much of their congregation probably wouldn't come back to the church for a long time. However, right now, both churches have waiting lists for their in-person services.

"I think half of our congregation will not come back until the vaccine. I could be guessing, but there's a lot of older folks and health-wise they might have concerns that they just don't want to be exposed and we don't want them to put themselves in harm," Eaton said. "There's a lot of people who feel like safety measures, social distancing … (mean) they can come back, and they want fellowship."

Meridian United Church of Christ is planning to revisit the possibility of reopening July 1 and will assess how other churches that have reopened are doing, according to church representative Ron Boeckman.

"We're going to be cautious before we make that decision," he said.

Boeckman said the church had been financially impacted by the pandemic, due to a decline in pledged donations and weekly donations at regular church services, and from renters no longer being able to use the church. Meanwhile, fixed costs have remained consistent. The church is currently in the process of deciding how to proceed in response to financial challenges.

"It's as unknown to us as anyone else whether we're on our way past it or facing another cycle (of the pandemic)," Boeckman said. "It leaves us without any clear vision for how to plan, so we're taking this as best we can in the (best way) that we can."

Barnicle, on the other hand, said his church is sound financially in part because they ask for pledged donations at the beginning of the year so they can organize their budget. He also said congregants have stepped up to donate to their COVID-19 fund, which goes to nonprofits like Wilsonville Community Sharing and helps struggling members pay for rent and utilities.

"I think we're the exception," Barnicle said. "I think colleagues at other churches have run into more financial challenges during this time."

Eaton also said Community of Hope has continued to receive enough donations to maintain financial stability, though she said it tries to keep costs to a minimum.

"It's been evident to us that our members want our church to survive and be here when we get through it," she said.


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