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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Churches proceed with caution amid omicron variant

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Janeane Jones hasn’t been inside Friendship Missionary Baptist Church for nearly two years, despite being a member for nearly 30 years. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Jones — who is a caregiver for her brother and often cares for her young grandson — has watched service through Facebook to help keep her family healthy. While she said sticking to virtual services is worth it to stay safe, Jones, like many other churchgoers, thought service would be back to normal by now.

But as the pandemic rages on, the omicron variant threw a wrench into some churches’ plans for the holiday season. While some churches returned to in-person services, many have reverted to virtual services ahead of Christmas and New Year’s Eve services. Churches remaining in person often require congregants to wear a mask to protect themselves against the highly contagious variant.

The first case of the omicron COVID-19 variant in Indiana was discovered in an unvaccinated resident Dec. 19. Since March 2020, over 1 million Hoosiers have been diagnosed with the virus, and 17,757 people in the state have died of COVID-19. With the newest variant discovered in Indiana just a week before Christmas, many local churches are taking precautions to keep their congregations safe.

Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church won’t have a Christmas Eve service, but Pastor Darryl Webster said attendees of the New Year’s Eve service are required to wear a mask throughout the service, have their temperatures taken at the door and use hand sanitizer when they enter the east side church. This is also the case for regular Sunday services.

To help raise awareness of the COVID-19 vaccine, the church hosted a vaccine clinic after service Dec. 12.

“When you look at it, the statistics tell us that people are dying, but being vaccinated helps you if you get the virus,” Webster said. “It’s one thing to have faith, but you have to be prepared. King David had faith, but he also had a sword.”

Getting Hoosiers vaccinated is part of Dr. Lionel Rush’s ministry. As president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Indianapolis (IMAI) and pastor of Greater Anointing Fellowship Church of God in Christ, Rush said church leaders have a responsibility to put the health and safety of their congregants at the forefront.

While Greater Anointing Fellowship has remained virtual since the beginning of the pandemic, the church will partner with the IMAI for a vespers service on Dec. 23. Social distancing and masks will be required, and a virtual option is available for those wanting to tune in from home. Rush said about 75% of his congregants are vaccinated, but he and other leaders are concerned about a potential surge in COVID-19 cases in the next few weeks as people travel and gather for Christmas. He said he’s working with other pastors to determine safety protocols, but ultimately, churches won’t go “back to normal” until people feel safe.

“It’s not the churches’ decision. We’ve seen too many instances of death and the trauma of people being intubated,” Rush said. “Nearly everyone knows someone who has died because of the coronavirus. It’s an equal opportunity killer, and that is the psyche of people. They’ll determine when they return to church.”

Members of New Mission Missionary Baptist Church returned to in-person services in September with social distancing and a mask requirement. However, when a congregant tested positive for COVID-19 in December, services returned to Facebook Live.

Outreach Pastor Ruben McKenzie said having a virtual Christmas Eve service is a small price to pay to keep everyone safe.

While not physically being in church has been an adjustment for Jones, she said the meaning of Christmas hasn’t changed.

“It doesn’t feel less like the holidays for me,” Jones said. “I do miss going to church, but I still pray every day and try to keep my closeness to our Heavenly Father and Jesus. And just normal things, like seeing decorations and Christmas songs, in my heart, nothing’s changed.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848 or BreannaC@indyrecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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