“It is the Greater Good”: Churches Close Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

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photo courtesy of Parker

St. Luke’s Memorial Episcopal Church cancelled all services in early March.

For many Tacoma residents, places of worship are more than just locations for religious gathering.  Places like St. Luke’s Memorial Episcopal Church, built in 1882 by Charles Barstow Wright, provide for the social, spiritual and even economic needs of an entire community of Tacomans. In early March, St. Luke’s cancelled both Sunday and Wednesday religious services, in addition to Sunday School meetings, and closed the church pre-school and nursery care center. 

In correspondence with Inkwell, Beth Sherrill, office manager of St. Luke’s, shared that many parishioners “have expressed how much they miss their church community,” and long for “the ability to meet, worship together, and give back to the community.” Church members have been affected in different ways. A baptism was postponed. One family has had to delay placing a loved one’s ashes in the church columbarium. 

After installing a wifi router, the church transitioned to worshipping online via Zoom, with one Sunday service and a nightly evening service. However, it has proved to be an imperfect arrangement. Many elderly parishioners do not have internet, or struggle to navigate the technology necessary to attend online worship. Consequently, Sherrill noted, they have felt isolated and cut-off from the community. “The (spiritual) impact cannot be put into words,” she wrote. “The impact of worshipping together and receiving communion cannot be replicated.”

To offer assistance to Tacoma residents feeling the economic impact of the pandemic, St. Luke’s converted its “little library” in front of the church into a “little pantry” containing food items for those in need. The church donated unused paper and plastic tableware to the Tacoma Rescue Mission.

Although the services such churches provide are unique, most churches themselves operate like any other business. To keep their doors open, they rely on weekly or monthly financial contributions from their parishioners, many of whom may be affected economically by the COVID-19 pandemic and rendered unable to donate; and more substantial yearly sums pledged by parishioners may be impacted due to a loss in income. Sherrill expressed concern that “the impacts of this will be felt more as the year goes on.” 

So far, the closure has affected both the staff and the church building itself. For the preschool teachers, the school closure may have an effect on their pay, especially as the families of students may be unable to pay tuition. Because there is no one on site each day, standard building maintenance has become impracticable. Once, an instance of water damage remained undiscovered for days, and necessary repair work was delayed.

Marlene Jacobs, Reverend of St. Luke’s, shared her feelings about the choice of some churches to remain open during the pandemic and hold services, such as to celebrate Easter. “Protecting those who are vulnerable to a severe case of this virus becomes a priority,” she wrote. “Not doing that seems self centered and self serving.”

“Those churches that stay open may say something like ‘we trust in God to protect us’. We also trust in God at St Luke’s, but we are called to use our reason and intellect, to adhere to the best information and science available, and to be law abiding. It is a significant hardship for us not to hold services in our beautiful sanctuary, and even postpone funerals and weddings. However, it is the greater good to protect our members and all those that they may have contact with. We look forward with longing to the day we can gather again, and we will appreciate this gift more than ever.”