A timeline appears for churches to reopen their pews in South Carolina
Many Upstate churches are now publicly planning a return to in-person worship services on May 17 while others have already returned or are holding off for another month or more.
It has been, and continues to be, a balancing act, said the Rev. Wayne Bray, lead pastor of First Baptist Simpsonville.
"I probably have a good percentage, 15 to 20%, of people who will say this is all a hoax and we should have opened seven Sundays ago," Bray said. "And another 15 to 20% who want to wait until fall or next year. But there's a large majority saying let's be really careful and smart and worship in a way that’s productive and not harmful."
His church will be reopening on May 17, with 22 services spread between five venues at three different campuses. The church will have new times to allow for cleaning between services, they'll be discouraging people from lingering after service and encouraging social distancing.
The state's Catholic diocese churches will open on the 17th with significant restrictions. Greenville's First Presbyterian Church will reopen on the 17th, too.
Many Baptist churches, the state's largest denomination, will open on the 17th but there is great variation with some having been open for weeks already and some not opening for another month or with no certain plans.
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United Methodist churches, the state's second largest denomination, are not expected to open until sometime after May 20, in line with the state bishop's guidance.
Bray said he expects about half of the usual crowd, or about 1,100 people to show up at the various services on May 17. That's about how many people came on March 15, the last in-person service and it's around half of what a typical Sunday had drawn previously.
Part of the calculus for Bray, and his church leaders, was to avoid Mother's Day, which is typically a busy church day.
"You almost have to force yourself to think exactly backward of the way you’ve been conditioned to think in ministry," he said. "When can we start and have the worst day possible?"
The reopening decision came down to weighing the safety of worshipers with the importance of in-person, or corporeal worship, Bray said.
Bray isn't looking for huge numbers, a small crowd would probably be better and he wants people who are concerned for health reasons to stay home.
People shouldn't fall into the trap of thinking that because church is open they should take uncomfortable risks, Bray said.
It has been fine to worship from home for two months and he would rather people who are concerned continue to worship at home if it is wiser for them. But others are hungry for in-person worship services and a reopening can accommodate both groups, Bray said.
The Rev. Matt Wireman, pastor of Christ the Redeemer in Greenville and an associate religion dean at North Greenville University, said his church will wait.
The concern about elderly or vulnerable feeling pressure to attend in person was a big factor in his church's decision to stay remote.
Wireman said financial concerns, it is a small church that was planted in late 2018, also helped the decision. Buying hand sanitizer, getting masks for people who needed them, getting extra cleaning supplies and getting members to help direct parking lot traffic would have been costly and time consuming.
Instead, members of the church taped postcards to storm doors in the Brandon Mills neighborhood, asking if anyone needed help. The church members ended up buying groceries for about a dozen people instead, Wireman said.
For other churches, such as larger ones, the financial costs of reopening may not be as burdensome, Wireman said. There are already parking lot teams and cleaning staff able to more easily handle the logistics of reopening, he said.
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May 17 is the date to watch
May 17 is a date that's been adapted by several other larger churches, Bray said, but there is by no means uniformity in the decision of when to open.
Temple Baptist Church, near his, has been open for two weeks.
And the Rev. Rex Simmons, of Living Grace Baptist Church in Piedmont, is looking forward to his first in-person worship service this Sunday.
Simmons' first service was in the parking lot of a strip mall that includes a library branch, a restaurant and a photo studio. It was scheduled for March 15.
Instead of inside the building, as planned, he had to change his worship service to the parking lot and has kept it up for weeks.
Now Simmons aims to bring it indoors, for his first time, on May 10.
Pastor Alex Sands, the president-elect of the South Carolina Baptist Association, said his Simpsonville church, Kingdom Life, is expected to continue worship services remotely until June at the earliest.
His church, with members who are predominantly black, could be more vulnerable to coronavirus, Sands said. He cited national and state figures showing a higher percentage of infection and death among black Americans.
Sands said he hasn't considered reopening yet but understands there are good reasons for some churches to do so, such as churches in remote areas or churches with young people or with members who don't have reliable Internet access.
He said church leaders across the state are looking at the same numbers from federal and state health experts, but each church has different risks and needs.
"We’re looking at the same numbers but arriving at different conclusions," Sands said.
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What all the pastors agree on is that they cannot wait to see their congregations in person again, in packed churches or in ones filled to some new capacity percentage.
Seeing children run up to give him a hug and tell him about their week will be like water to a thirsty man, Sands said.
"There's a whole dynamic of giving someone a hug, of taking their hand and praying with them," he said. "We look forward to doing that again safely, it may be soon or the end of year or a year and a half, but I think people will come back and there will be new people coming."