Driving past many churches on Sunday, one can see parking lots filled with the vehicles of those attending a weekly service. As the coronavirus pandemic has stretched on, local places of worship have been forced to institute a variety of measures designed to keep the congregations active.
Nearly all make Sunday sermons available online. Some hold services outdoors. And some, in defiance of a state order, have taken church back inside.
“I’ve seen an amazing amount of creativity,” said Angelo Frazier, one of the pastors at RiverLakes Community Church. “I’ve talked to a lot of pastors. There’s a tremendous amount of frustration because of the inconsistency. And our leaders, some of them are saying one thing and then doing another.”
Frazier said Riverlakes has been holding services outside as well as online. Although outside services have been a blessing in some senses, they have also presented challenges. From the heat, noise, air quality and now cold, a whole host of disruptions can put a damper on any preacher’s sermon.
“When you’re not in a building, you’re at the mercy of the environment,” he said. “And the air quality here, we have seniors who are struggling.”
Churches across Bakersfield have been forced to balance the needs of their congregations with coronavirus precautions and state orders. Although indoor services were briefly allowed in Kern, as COVID-19 cases have spread more and more rapidly, the county and much of the state have been placed in the most restrictive purple tier, which does not allow indoor church services.
Still, some churches have decided to forge ahead with indoor worship services.
“We always say we’re doing more than Costco or Albertsons or any of your grocery stores,” said David Buck, a pastor at Laurelglen Bible Church, which has been holding indoor services for several months.
He described numerous health procedures Laurelglen had put in place to combat the spread of COVID-19. From not allowing family groups to sit within six feet of one another to having people enter and exit through different doors, and more, he said the church was doing its part to prevent the spread of disease while also providing something the congregation urgently needs.
“The amount of counseling we’re doing now. People are really frustrated with society,” he said. “You have a job, I have a job, but that’s not the norm. The church needs to be able to help.”
And part of that help is meeting indoors.
“We cannot ignore the negative impact that not meeting together has on our ability to minister to our church body's needs, many of which have increased because of the pandemic and related restrictions,” a letter posted to Laureglen’s website states. “Our people need each other's support and the shepherding of their leaders and pastors in ways that just are not the same when the body isn't gathering together.”
Yet public health officials have been leery of allowing indoor services. The California Department of Public Health said in industry guidance that common practices like singing and chanting increase the likelihood of transmission from contaminated water droplets, and negates the effect of physical distancing.
“Even with adherence to physical distancing, convening in a congregational setting of multiple different households to practice a personal faith carries a relatively higher risk for widespread transmission of the COVID-19 virus,” CDPH wrote in the guidance, “and may result in increased rates of infection, hospitalization, and death, especially among more vulnerable populations.”
Some faith leaders have said the state’s rules, which allow indoor retail activity, are hypocritical. A legal challenge has also shown the potential to overturn the ban on indoor services.
On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a decision by the Central District Court of California that upheld state restrictions on churches. The Supreme Court recently issued a 5-4 ruling on a New York case that found limitations to places of worship due to coronavirus were unconstitutional. In light of their New York decision, justices sent the California case back to the lower court for reconsideration.
Still, many churches in Bakersfield are not waiting for the court to act before holding indoor services.
“I think people are deciding to do what is god-given to them,” Frazier said. “They are going to do what they need to do and the consequences will be what they are.”