On March 13 the first Graham County resident was diagnosed with COVID-19 prompting events, church services, government meetings and athletic events to either disappear or move online. Now, nearly four months later some churches have opened their doors back up, others have not.
At St. Rose of Lima in Safford, mass is still being held outdoors, but weddings and funerals are being held inside, albeit with social distancing rules enforced.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Graham County have been staying home from all church meetings since early March and Jana Cherrington, a communications person for the church, said the situation remains the same.
“The safety and well being of our members and our communities are our priority. At this time members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Gila Valley will continue to have worship services in their homes. We look forward to when we can safely gather and worship together while following health and local government guidelines,” said Cherrington.
Reverend Sherry Brady of the First United Methodist Church said her sermons remain online. Sometimes sermons are recorded on balconies, but her most recent sermon was shot on Mount Graham. First United Methodist Church Bishop Robert Hoshibata checks weekly with the health department and the governor’s office and he has continued to suspend worship services.
“If anything it’s really made us as worship leaders or pastors, creative in how we do church,” said Brady. “We can’t even meet in groups. We can’t have live group meetings at our church at any kind. Which means we can’t have daycares. So basically it’s shut down, but like I said he checks almost every week for us. So this week is our first time that he is still suspending meeting with groups but he is actually allowing no more than five people in the sanctuary to do the music if we want to film.”
At the Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Safford, families can sit inside the building together. Regular church services resumed on May 24. Sunday school for the youth is still not being held.
“Masks are encouraged to be worn, but not mandated,” said Pastor Paul Schulz. “I think it’s working out great. I think some people are not coming to us thinking it’s safer that way and that’s okay.”
Schulz wears a mask through the church meeting, and said he has missed going to church and is glad to have meetings once again. He hopes the youth Sunday school will return in the fall, and doesn’t know of anyone who isn’t attending. The church is cleaned after each meeting and Schulz said he believes people are attending church because they missed being there.
Pastor Ken Burk of First Baptist Church of Safford said they re-opened on Mother’s Day, but are trying to be careful. For example, they don’t pass an offering plate anymore and are skipping the usual hugs and hand shaking. They have also have reserved seating for the elderly and vulnerable. They also encourage families to sit separately from other families.
For those too uncomfortable to return to church, he said they have continued to live stream their services.
Burk cited Hebrews 10:25 for re-opening. The passage recommends “not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh.”
“People are over-joyed to be back at services,” Burk said.
Pastor David Hakes, who preaches at the Seventh-day Adventists in Safford, said the attendance is lower nowadays. Hakes preaches in Globe as well, and in Globe the attendance is not as low as Safford’s congregation. Because of the low numbers, Hakes is also live streaming weekly sermons on Facebook. No food is shared and the sermon is limited to an hour while the congregation is asked to wear a mask. Hakes said youth Sunday school is not going on because families don’t feel safe bringing their children to church.
“I think it’s going good, I feel perfectly safe,” said Hakes. “Most of them are not coming back because they’re afraid. I hope we’ll get back to normal soon.”
At the Victory Fellowship Church, Pastor John Neal does Wednesday night bible study on Zoom but Sunday services in the building. Neal said Zoom is a fun and interactive experience but Sunday school for youngsters is not available. The individuals working for the church wear masks and gloves while the attending congregation can do so if they chose. Temperatures are taken when individuals come into the building, and the congregation are responsible for social distancing themselves.
“A lot of people watch church online,” said Neal. “People that would normally be here are afraid. People that wouldn’t normally be here are.”
Neal said COVID-19 is both inspiring some people to go to church but people are staying home too.
“It’s much better being back in the building. People need interaction. It’s always scary when people are locked in the house. It’s not good,” said Neal.
The new Life City Church temporarily suspended their children’s church and nursery. Everything is running like usual again. The church continued services for any members who wanted to come in. Senior Pastor Phillip Tutor said people are welcome to wear masks if they choose and the church has some masks for those who want to. However, many of the church congregation choose not to.