East Texas churches are doing their part in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 among their congregations.

Some have switched to a hybrid or virtual platform as all seven counties under the Northeast Public Health District’s jurisdiction experience “substantial” community transmission levels of the virus. NET Health defines the level as large scale, uncontrolled community transmission in congregate settings such as churches.

Many congregations are practicing social distancing, implemented by separating every other church pew and offering hand sanitizer and masks if members choose to wear one.

College Hill Baptist Church in Tyler follows COVID guidelines in the church, but also offers a hybrid model of ministry to reach its congregation and beyond on all social media platforms. The church has also introduced a podcast.

“We’re using every medium that we possibly can to get the word out and stay connected,” Pastor Rodney Curry said.

Curry said the church feels led to continue ministering as the pandemic goes through its third year.

He added the church has also changed the way it collects tithes and offerings, by using mobile apps to send money virtually. He added the church’s live streams have seen hundreds of views and have reached as far as San Antonio. In person, about 100 to 125 members gather but the number fluctuates each Sunday.

At the height of the pandemic, the church closed its doors for nearly over a year.

“That 13-, 14-month span was a lot and to come back together, it was a shift psychologically. I went from preaching from eight to 10 people, then to people back in the sanctuary,” he said.

Curry said as the church continues to adapt and grow throughout this time, the congregation remembers how important it is to recognize those who have been affected by COVID.

“We’re continuously praying for everyone sick, all that have been affected by this pandemic. I know what it is. There’s people who have really championed through this. We’re going to get through this,” Curry said.

At the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Tyler, where about 250 members gather each Saturday, Pastor Claudio Vilela said the church nurse checks members for fever as they enter. The goal is to ensure everyone is healthy so the virus doesn’t spread amongst members.

In the sanctuary, Vilela said members are required to mask up before entering. If members arrive without a mask, there are plenty offered at the church.

“Before entering through the doors, they need to be masked,” he said.

If someone who has attended the church tests positive for COVID-19, Vilela said the church notifies members of a positive case and notifies them to stay home for at least five days, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends. As of last week, Vilela said fortunately no members have tested positive for the virus.

At the height of the pandemic in 2020, Vilela said almost 30 members of his church tested positive. The church closed its doors for two months.

“We’re all very safe, well taken care of, at all times teaching others how to follow (guidelines)... We need to be safe. We can’t be careless with safety on our end. As a church, we do our job of taking care of our members and them, taking care of their families,” Vilela said.

At First Presbyterian Church in Longview, Pastor Kendal Land said staff have tested positive at the church’s day school during the latest COVID wave.

Land said the church is still worshipping in person but is also offering online services. For those who attend in person, First Presbyterian is also offering masks and hand sanitizer.

There are about 150 members in the church physically each Sunday, and at one point, had almost 2,000 members joining online, Land said.

Over time, Land said the congregation has developed a heightened awareness of how important it is to take care of each other and the importance of protecting those who may be more vulnerable.

“We’ve had way too many funerals, we’ve had way too many illnesses, that part’s been really, really hard. Way too many people who didn’t have jobs, all that stuff,” Land said of the effects of the pandemic.

Thursday night, the church’s Board of Elders and Clerk of Session met to remind the congregation there are COVID protocols in place. But he feels those attending service in person are the most careful.

“Most of them have been vaccinated and boosted. Most of them take necessary precautions wearing masks and maintaining social distance and sanitizing their hands. We have a very conscientious congregation,” he said.

In the first wave of implementing specific COVID measures, Land said naturally, members learned to follow those guidelines themselves without the church needing to implement during the waves to come.

“When it comes to change, churches are kind of like a freight, and when it turns, when it changes directions, it changes very, very, very slowly, incrementally. Usually, that’s how churches are, but this wave of COVID has forced us to turn dramatically fast to change in dramatic directions,” Land said.

Like many other churches, Land said one of the best things that has come from the pandemic is the ability to now live stream services online to reach more people. Land said congregants are also able to use social media platforms for the same. He mentioned other churches in the area have begun interacting with members at home by taking votes for their favorite songs and singing the more requested.

First United Methodist in Longview is taking similar precautions, said Senior Pastor Reverend Jay Jackson. At the church’s three primary worship Sunday services each week, worship attendance averages about 500 with live streaming.

In September 2020, the church reintroduced worship services after having closed its doors for a month of transitional soft launch services in the Fellowship Hall, where they worshipped in a socially-distanced and masked setting. In the advent Christmas season a year ago, the church returned to the sanctuary.

“I can say that we have had very successful reintroduction of worship activity and continue to have very positive circumstances that have been witnessed in our active congregation,” Jackson said.

The church also continues to worship in a contemporary setting once each week in the Faith Center Gymnasium, while also maintaining two services in the sanctuary, Jackson said.

“We have had extremely minimal impacts from COVID and we believe that is because of the protocols that we introduced when reintroducing worship, and though those have changed as the movement has progressed, I think that our congregation feels comfortable that people have the ability to mask and to socially distance for their own protection,” Jackson said. He added others are respectful of that as they make their own personal decisions about their own masking.

First United Methodist also has hand sanitizer stations at the entrance of all its worship venues. The church encourages social distancing as much as possible, Jackson said. The church has not reintroduced the requirement of masks in the worship environment at this time, Jackson said.

“We have had conversations about steps we would take, but because we have had no identifiable transmission issues in our worship environment, we maintain the status of where we are, even with omicron,” Jackson said.

 
 

Recent Stories You Might Have Missed

Bilingual Multimedia Journalist

I cover COVID-19 and health in the East Texas area for Tyler Morning Telegraph, the Longview News-Journal and Tyler Paper Español. Stephen F. Austin State University alumna. For story ideas, email me at rtorres@tylerpaper.com.