Mississippi churches face difficult decisions at Christmas

RIDGELAND, miss. (AP) - Pastor Jay Richardson always feels special when his congregation gathers at Highland Colony Baptist Church over the holidays - but this year it's all the more so when they've been apart.
The church was temporarily closed at the beginning of the pandemic, and again three months ago when 25 worshipers were infected with coronavirus during an outbreak. Richardson, 70, was hospitalized with double pneumonia caused by the virus.
As difficult as it was to deal with an outbreak, in many ways the isolation it caused was worse, Richardson said.
"I made a decision here that we won't close this church unless it's a very, very unique situation," said Richardson, explaining the fact that we cannot worship together Has hurt members emotionally and spiritually.
According to the Pew Research Center, Mississippi is the center of the Bible Belt, where residents consider themselves to be the most religious in the country. At the same time, most of the state falls into the high risk category for coronaviruses due to a high rate of conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes.
Houses of worship faced tough choices during the pandemic, and those challenges were exacerbated as new cases peaked around the holiday season and thousands of Americans died from the virus every day.
The state health officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs described churches as "powder kegs" for viral infections and deaths. State health data has shown church services in Mississippi have caused significant numbers of outbreaks.
"From a public health perspective, we don't need to go to church," Dobbs said during a virtual chat about the upcoming holiday.
Meanwhile, Republican Governor Tate Reeves says that worship cannot be restricted because freedom of religion is a constitutional right.
Reeves has limited the number of people who can congregate at the same time - currently 10 people indoors and 50 people outdoors, with no social distancing - but those regulations have never applied to religious institutions.
The subject was the subject of a judicial debate. In a 5 to 4 vote last month, the Conservatively-led Supreme Court prevented New York from enforcing certain restrictions on visiting churches and synagogues in virus-affected areas.
“God is greater than government,” Reeves wrote on Facebook after the court's verdict. "The right to freely practice one's beliefs must never be violated."
With the recent surge in virus cases in Mississippi, both the United Methodist Conference's Pandemic Task Force and the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi have called for an end to personal service.
"It breaks my heart to go in this direction, especially now in Advent," said the state's bishop, Rt. Rev. Brian R. Seage, wrote in a December 3 letter.
But many have kept their routines. Currently, the Highland Colony - a mostly white church in a suburb of Jackson - still holds personal services.
“God built a rhythm into our Christian life, and part of that rhythm meets regularly,” said Richardson. "If you get where you don't, your whole life will come out of rhythm."
Richardson, who was hospitalized for five days, was the most seriously ill member of the Church during the Highland Colony outbreak.
Church leaders believe that the outbreak began during a chant group rehearsal and then spread during a Sunday service.
After that, they canceled small group meetings and made more space for singers. They had already added a second Sunday service to limit the crowd, distribute seating, and add disinfection stations and temperature controls.
Richardson expects no more than 300 attendees for the two Christmas Eve services this year. The church has 750 seats.
Joy Sartain, 89, was wearing a mask sitting on a section of seating that was cordoned off to vulnerable populations when she recently attended a Highland Colony service.
“I have trouble understanding why some people go to a restaurant and eat, go to the grocery store, or go to the mall, but are scared of going to church? It doesn't make sense to me, "she said." We can safely do that, and it is so important to us. "
Each church's approach has been influenced by their experience with the virus.
At Anderson United Methodist, a predominantly African-American church in Jackson, Rev. Joe May said he had seen the toll of COVID-19 firsthand. He said 10 members of his church had died during the pandemic.
Anderson has not returned to personal worship, but is providing virtual services and daily calls to prayer. Once a month the church holds a car service that attracts around 400 people. Up to 1,000 people were present before the pandemic.
May has noticed ongoing concern about the virus among members and that is something he has been trying to respect. He said he thinks it reflects how the pandemic has hit blacks particularly hard.
“Now is a very dangerous time as the numbers triple and quadruple. I think it's a very, very insecure method, ”he said of personal worship. "It's awful when people give up their vigilance."
Despite all precautions, May said five members of the Church worship group had recently tested positive for COVID-19.
"A church is not just a building, a church is people," he said. “We can keep our employees connected. You can worship God without having to gather in a building. "
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Leah Willingham is a corps member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a not-for-profit national service program in which journalists report undercover issues to local newsrooms.
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Jay Richardson
Tate Reeves

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