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Worshipping during a pandemic

Many churches in the area have elected to close their doors amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Fitzgerald Memorial Baptist Church (MBC) in Cumberland County remained open using its different areas of the church to maintain social distancing until this weekend when church leaders decided to close the church to services and use Facebook Live for online worship. 

Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam issued an emergency mandate March 23 ordering the closure of certain non-essential businesses and banning gatherings of more than 10 people across the commonwealth.

The order makes Sunday services effectively impossible for most of the area’s churches.

In an interview March 27, Fitzgerald MBC’s pastor, Rev. Barry Vassar, said the small Cumberland church was working to follow the governor’s strict orders while still allowing the congregation to gather in person.

Vassar said the church averages between 40-50 visitors on a usual Sunday. After the COVID-19 outbreak occurred, numbers have reduced to 16-22.

Vassar said that while other churches elected to move to online streaming of Sunday services during the pandemic, most of Fitzgerald MBC’s congregation lacks internet service to make digital services a possibility. 

The church also considered offering outdoor services that larger churches provide, but lacked the space or equipment. 

As the Baptist church is autonomous, Vassar and his church members elected to keep the church open until April 3.

“We’re governed by the people of the church … ultimately, every decision we make goes back to the membership,” he said. 

Fitzgerald MBC, Vassar stated, developed a strategy to continue in-person service while still abiding by the governor’s social distancing and limitations to room capacities. 

Vassar’s plan to utilized speakers throughout the church building. The church’s sound system can broadcast into two separate rooms in addition to the sanctuary. 

Church members were welcomed into the sanctuary to hear Vassar’s message in-person. When the room exceeded the 10-person limit, additional churchgoers were seated in other rooms throughout the building, allowing them to still be present at church and hear the message via the sound system. 

Members sat at least six feet apart, and no rooms will exceeded the governor’s 10-occupant restriction, meaning a maximum of 30 people could be inside the church building at one time. 

For members of Fitzgerald MBC who chose to stay home during the pandemic and have good internet service, Vassar is pre-recording his sermons to upload to the church’s Facebook page at 1 p.m. on Sundays. 

“If we were a larger metropolitan church, we would more than likely go along with closing the doors and do some sort of outside service or Facebook Live,” Vassar said. “But we don’t have the ability to do it, and we don’t want to deny people the right to come and worship.”

Vassar said that he has been working each Sunday to address the seriousness of the pandemic with church members, advocating for social distancing, cleanliness and the protection of the immune-compromised.

He emphasized that many church members, especially the older adults, are only able to socialize by grocery shopping, a weekly lunch outing or attending church. 

“The only place they have left to even see anybody, even if it’s just from 10-feet away and just to wave, is church,” he said. 

The church does plan to reevaluate the situation every week and and continue looking for other possible avenues to get the Sunday message out to members. 

Vassar’s message for Sunday, March 29, was about counting your blessings. 

“To stand firm in the situation or circumstances we are in, to persevere and to grow through it, change through it, benefit from it.” 

Fitzgerald MBC, according to Vassar, was built May 5, 1928. He hopes that the current coronavirus concerns prompt older churchgoers to embrace current technology to offer other ways of bringing service to the people in times of need.

Edit: Comments, information and quotes from this interview were conducted March 27. Hours and services are scheduled to change. Follow https://www.facebook.com/fitzgeraldmbc/ for updates.