Many of our old habits and ways of doing things are changing before our eyes during this pandemic-ridden annus horribilis, including, it seems, worship.
On Friday afternoon, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced his Health Equity Response (H.E.R.) Task Force, which he formed in April 2020 to address health inequities and access, had released new guidelines for faith-based organizations and houses of worship to reopen and resume services.
The guidelines, he continued, answer three critical questions:
- "How can we protect congregants, staff, and volunteers who attend service?"
- "How do we assure our communities we are doing all we can to protect them?"
- "How do we minimize transmission risk?"
The results are the following "critical guidelines":
- Reopen houses of worship at 25-percent capacity.
- Offer pre-registration for services.
- Clean and disinfect all surface areas, including doors and tables, before, during, and after services.
- Avoid sharing AV equipment like microphones and spaces like pulpits.
- Remove shared items like hymnals, pens, and offering envelopes.
Read the complete set of guidelines here.
Throughout the announcement, the mayor emphasized that these are not mandates, but guidelines "that we offer for people to consider." He continued that because there is a “separation of church and state,” he could not order the organizations.
However, Gov. Greg Abbott, despite being the governor of the state of Texas, closed down houses of worship on March 31 when he issued his statewide stay-home orders. He then reopened houses of worship in the first phase of re-openings on May 1.
Turner, though, has been averse to making any orders about faith-based organizations since the beginning of the pandemic.
On March 13, after shutting down many city events, Turner said he would not make a ruling when it comes to faith-based organizations, encouraging the churches and worship centers to make careful decisions.
“In order for us to get through it, we are literally going to have to pace ourselves and change our habits,” Turner said then. “For now, and in the foreseeable future we are going to have to learn to even worship in a different way. ... but we will get through it.”
On April 8, Turner reminded religious leaders to use technology and whatever else they need to in order to celebrate the upcoming religious holidays (Easter, Passover, and Ramadan). “We’ll come through it, and as my mama would say, ‘This too shall pass,’” Turner said.
Then on April 28, after Abbott loosening restrictions on faith-based gatherings, the mayor said he wouldn’t tell people what to do, but, yet again, he encouraged cautiousness. “You can pray from wherever you are,” he said.
Throughout these statements, though, Turner’s main message has been one of caution and for faith-based institutions to remain closed. But, it appears his hand has now been forced as several large religious organizations in Houston recently announced plans to resume services.
Joel Osteen-led megachurch Lakewood Church will resume services Sunday, October 18, at 25 percent capacity, which, mind you, is about 4,200 people. The Islamic Society of Greater Houston announced in August that mosques would reopen on August 14th at 10-percent capacity and under strict social-distancing guidelines. (Meanwhile, some of Houston’s largest synagogues, including Beth Yeshurun, the country’s largest synagogue practicing Conservative Judaism, held virtual services for the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in late September.)
“You could go without providing any guidelines at all, but people going to do what they’re going to do,” Turner said. “You can be silent, but that doesn’t help the situation, especially when people are looking around and seeing some things opening up, and are saying why not faith-based organizations?”
He called the guidelines a roadmap on how to move forward safely.
Several local faith leaders, who are also members of the Task Force's Faith & Community Leaders sub-committee, stressed the importance of following the new guidelines, especially mask wearing.
"Worshiping is about caring," said UNION Houston lead pastor Rodrigo Vargas. "Worship is about protecting others."
When asked about the moral responsibility of faith-based leaders to protect their congregants, the leaders present, who were all Christian in spite of the nondenominational nature sub-committee, praised the guidelines as a way to worship safely.
Sub-committee chair Dr. Irishea Hilliard of New Light Church talked ensuring at-risk populations felt safe enough to come was a high priority of the committee. "We shouldn't have to risk our lives to lift up our faith," she said.
Vargas compared a faith's leader role to a shepherd leading and protecting his flock through danger. He also noted that while some in his congregation pushed back about wearing a mask, worship is about "having enough faith to care for people to be a little inconvenienced" to protect others.
City leaders, though, brushed off concerns that reopening houses of worship could lead to a super-spreader event.
A "super spreader event isn't identified until afterward," said Persse, stating that as long as the organizations keep people separate and spread them out—keeping the venue at a low density—things should be alright. However earlier in the press conference, both Persse and Turner stressed the rising Covid-19 numbers across Texas and Europe as reasons for people to remain vigilant and continue social distancing.
Considering the coronavirus is spread through airborne droplets, some at the conference expressed concerns over congregations singing, but Persse again said that should be alright, so long as people wore masks that covered their nose and mouth.
"Some people may be able to bellow a whole lot louder than others—and that's great," Persse said, "but if you're you're wearing the mask properly, it should catch all those droplets."
Read CDC guidelines for communities of faith here.