HERMISTON — On Sunday, Nov. 7, Pastor Patty Nance and two young children in suits began a morning service by walking up to the front of their church and lighting candles. They were all wearing masks, trying to reduce the chance of COVID-19 transmission, and they were not alone in their mask wearing.
Every single person in Hermiston First United Methodist Church was wearing a mask. During the entire service, the only time anyone removed a mask was when speaking at the front of the church, behind a lectern or at the altar.
This comes at a time mask-wearing has become politicized, and some television evangelists have decried both masks and vaccinations. First United, however, has sided with precautions, according to the pastor. For not only was everyone masked, but the church had other signs of the seriousness by which they are taking COVID-19.
A few such signs, just outside the sanctuary, were actual signs — one that posted recommendations for social distancing, masks and hand-washing. Another sign included a checklist of COVID-19 symptoms.
First United had hand-sanitizing stations at entrances and a sign-in book asking people to admit their vaccination status.
As the service fell on the first Sunday following All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1, the church celebrated heroes of Christianity, both past and present. Nance recommended keeping them, and their ways of showing that they were “marked by the fruit of the spirit,” in mind.
Guest speakers Joy Matthews and Jackie Linton took the pulpit to remind the congregation of suffering individuals. Their examples show us the need for God’s forgiveness and justice, as people “seek the face of God,” they said.
Meanwhile, the congregation remained masked, and members did not take their masks off when singing their only song of the service, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” They went outside to sing that song at the end of the service.
They also took communion outside. Bread, signifying the body of Christ, was served with a gloved hand and tongs. The juice, which represented Jesus’ blood, was delivered in tiny, individual plastic cups.
It was not the most comfortable of situations, admitted Bob Daniel of Hermiston. He was at the Nov. 7 service. He said he has been a member of the church for more than 40 years, and he was “not crazy about masks.” Still, he said he wore one for every service because he thought it was the right thing to do.
Another member, Janie Early, Irrigon, was at the service. She wore the mask at church and wherever she goes these days, she said. With her family at church that Sunday, she said the masks were uncomfortable, but she wore them out of love for her fellow man. She expressed the belief that masks reduce transmission and wearing them protects her community.
Love and protection
In an interview the day before the service, Nance said masks help. Also, believers should love their neighbor, and do what they can to promote people’s health and happiness, she said.
“I am so proud of them,” Nance said of her congregation.
They closed at a point last year, she said, but members came together and agreed on a set of rules that included wearing masks, and they kept to those rules.
Around 35 people attended the service, a typical number, Nance said, and they all keep true to the mask rule. She said she believes these rules have helped reduce the chance that one of them would get sick and die of COVID-19.
“I, personally, can’t name one person in my congregation whose funeral I’d like to conduct because they died from COVID,” she said. “And I’ve seen that, not in my congregation, but other places.”
She pointed to some other churches, which suffered deaths and illnesses, from COVID-19.
Her decisions to close the church for a time and to install safeguards have received some criticism from outside her congregation, however. She spoke of one example, where one person called her and challenged her on her lack of faith. The caller, Nance said, asked her how she can profess to trust God while also taking precautions against disease.
“I think it was the most dumbfounding thing anyone had said to me in years,” Nance said. She said she believes “God made really smart scientists, and we’re going to follow the science.”
Pendleton church takes similar path
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, 241 S.E. Second St., Pendleton, already started putting its services online. The Rev. Charlotte Wells at the church said that made it easy to transition to exclusively online services during the height of the pandemic when the church was closed to in-person gatherings.
And when the church welcomed people back to in-person services, masks were required, she said.
Singing also was something that had to be considered, she said. For a time, she said, the congregation did not sing, but they do now. And they are masked when they do it, she said.
Communion was changed, as well. Wells said the wine is poured into individual cups, then sanitized for reuse.
What would Jesus do?
Wells said she understands many people have strong opinions against masks, and her take on Jesus includes consideration of them.
“Jesus was always interested in bringing healing to all,” she said. “He would have responded with compassion to anyone who didn’t believe in wearing a mask, but he would have kept them away from the people that were wearing masks who were vulnerable.”
Looking forward to her service in which First United celebrated All Saints’ Day, Nance said she was keeping in mind great heroes. People such as John Wesley, Methodist founder, and Martin Luther King, Jr., would have masked.
Jesus, who is the “ultimate healer,” taught loving God and loving neighbors, she said, and it is possible to cover our faces even as we seek the face of God.
“Jesus would have masked,” Nance said.
“Yes, I think he would have worn a mask, because he would not have wanted anyone else to contract the disease, she said.
And there is the possibility, Wells added, that Jesus would have healed everyone.