MONTPELIER, Va. — Sundays were at once wonderfully familiar and painfully different for the 70 Christians who, in staggered small groups, entered Hopeful Baptist Church for the 11 a.m. service.
In the months since the novel coronavirus shut down communal worship, some congregants could not resist coming to their small country church anyway. One 6-year-old wanted to have her birthday parade in Hopeful’s parking lot. A dozen people, longing to connect, met one evening and, spread out and silent, walked prayer circles around the building.
For the first time in two months, some of Hopeful’s faithful finally were back inside, two days after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, slightly eased shutdown restrictions for most of the state.
Things looked dramatically different: Communion’s juice and cracker came in packages waiting on trays at the door, not passed by smiling, familiar deacons. Pews, empty of hymnals and Bibles, were stocked with photocopied handouts. The family that always occupies the middle of the far right section was home, recovering from the highly contagious virus. Some elderly members also stayed home, leaving empty spots in the middle section, left behind the piano, and elsewhere.
Those who made it sang traditional hymns, murmured “amens,” heard the Rev. Leroy Davis preach about what God may be doing when “he messes up your plans,” and returned, gratefully, to a slice of their previous spiritual lives.
“I was determined if I could put one foot in front of the other I was going to be here,” 76-year-old deacon Barry Alderson said as he choked back tears after the service.
Blind and using a cane, he was dressed in a crisp yellow suit, tie and green polka-dotted mask. He’s left the house since March only for treatment of his Stage 4 bone cancer and, now, for church. “I need to be part of my Christian family,” he said.
What communal worship looks like in the United States and around the world is evolving. Many houses of worship in the parts of Virginia and Maryland that reopened last weekend kept their doors shut. That included the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, the Episcopal dioceses of Virginia and Maryland and most Jewish congregations across the region. Some clergy who were opening up declined to be interviewed by The Washington Post last week because they feared protests or criticism.
The District of Columbia suburbs of Maryland and Virginia and other hot spots, including the cities of Baltimore and Richmond, remained closed.
But on this cloudy spring morning the doors of this 213-year-old Southern Baptist church, located on a rural curve on the border of Louisa and Henrico counties, were wide open, and the congregation was living up to its name.
“It’s home. You know the smiles from the eyes. You know the love behind the masks,” said Jessica Beck, a physical therapist who has attended the church for 12 years, was married there and came back Sunday with her husband and their two girls.
Ryan Beck said he hopes the couple’s daughters will have their weddings at the church as well. “And when it’s my time to go, I hope I’ll be buried in the backyard,” he added, referring to the cemetery behind the red brick church building.
Staying away had been difficult, Ryan Beck said: “You’re always the best Christian you’re going to be when you leave church. By the time Saturday night comes around, between work and finances pressure, you feel yourself slipping. Looking at the building, and knowing all the people who came to know the Lord inside — it’s a recharge on your batteries. I feel a Christian needs to be in the building.”
Northam and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, kept strict limits on attendance for churches, part of the social distancing measures that had ushers, clergy and deacons measuring pews to see how many family groups could sit six feet apart. Organizers also rejiggered services to limit singing, touching or sharing items.
They wanted services to be familiar, and meaningful, despite the differences.
Davis, who has been pastor at Hopeful for eight years, decided that meant no choir. No handed-out bulletin with community announcements and everyone’s birthday. No passed tray for financial offerings. Of the church’s 300 members, about 150 attend on a typical Sunday, Davis said. But he knew this first opening-up Sunday wouldn’t be a full house, with all the elderly members.
Decisions about when and how to reopen factor what congregations have been able to do during the virus shutdown. While many have gone online and have members who can easily connect and communicate and pray virtually, others — such as Hopeful — do not.
The church sits in area of low connectivity, and Davis said about 60% of the congregation does not have WiFi. He’s been streaming his weekly services on Facebook but knows only a fraction is watching. He also has been doing twice-a-day robocalls offering scripture and encouragement.
Davis was among dozens of Virginia clergy to sign a letter in early May urging Northam to consider churches “essential” and reopen them.
“Corporate worship is commanded by Scripture and has been a foundational element of the Christian faith for more than 2,000 years,” the clergy wrote. “Alternatives are not adequate . . . with each passing week that corporate worship is banned . . . the government pushes Christians closer to the point where they must choose to sin against God and conscience or violate the law.”
Tricia and Charles Melton watched Davis every pandemic Sunday morning at 11 a.m. from their porch, sharing an iPhone. Stuck at home instead of teaching Sunday school (her) and being a deacon (him), they found themselves watching three or four extra services as well from regionally and nationally well-known preachers.
But this Sunday, they were beaming as they climbed into their car to head to church.
“There is something unique and special about a group of Christians getting together,” Tricia said. “There’s a physical feeling to it.”