The holiday season is about family, friends, food and, for many, faith. Houses of worship usually are full around Christmas, but most will be empty this year.
Normally at this time of year, senior pastor Mike Baker and his staff at Eastview Christian Church in Normal would be busy preparing for a dizzying schedule of Christmas Eve services.
Eastview is one of the largest churches in central Illinois with 7,000 members. The church conducted seven Christmas Eve services last year. This year, it will be quite different because of COVID-19.
“I’m 55 years old. I’ve been a pastor for 35 years and this is probably going to be the first Christmas Eve that I have not been in church,” Baker said.
Instead, Eastview has recorded a Christmas Eve service that it will live stream that afternoon. Eastview resumed in-person worship in August with limited seating, but Baker said social distancing for a holiday service would be much harder to do.
“We knew that we would have tons of people and visitors, and we knew that we would either have to have 20 services that were reasonable in terms of percentages of attendees, or we should do something different,” Baker explained.
Eastview is not alone.
Other Twin City churches are planning virtual services during the holidays--as they have done since the pandemic began in the spring.
Deacon Kevin Jackson at Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church in Bloomington said his church is focused on keeping all of its members “safe and secure from the hazards associated with COVID-19.
“This is a joyous time of the year, as we continue to serve our community and worship in a safe and meaningful manner,” Jackson said.
Some churches will open their doors for the holidays. Epiphany Catholic Church in Normal plans to hold as many Christmas Eve services as it takes to allow for socially-distanced worship. The church took pre-registrations for three services and has added a fourth.
Epiphany has been open since the state relaxed rules for houses of worship in June.
Pastoral assistant Cindy Myers said Epiphany has been regularly close to filling its 25% capacity, adding said parishioners wear masks as required and follow health guidelines.
“Folks are very aware of everything going on in our world, of course, but we have had pretty consistent attendance at Epiphany,” Myers said.
Epiphany also will offer a virtual Christmas Eve service, but Myers said the church felt it was important to offer worship in-house services for one of the holiest days on the calendar.
“I think for everybody this time in COVID feels a little different, for some it feels a lot different,” Myers said. “I’m just very happy that this is an option for those who so desire to come.”
Hanukkah isn't as significant a holiday for Jews as Christmas is for Christians, but the two often are linked because they so close on the calendar.
Moses Montefiore Temple in Bloomington has remained closed since the pandemic began. Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe said the temple serves a mostly older population that are at greater risk of COVID complications. All services are online only until further notice.
“We are calling it the new normal. We are doing what we can, because we can still light the menorah,” Dubowe said on IPR's The 21st Show. “That doesn’t stop us because we aren’t able to be together in person.”
Hanukkah is an eight-day observance that ends Friday. Dubowe said the festival of lights is steeped in traditions that people can do at home, including lighting the menorah.
She said that will have to do for now.
“Everybody has a home and we can do what we can to enjoy,” Dubowe said. “Everything is happening virtual and there is a little disconnection of community, but we are doing our best to reach out.”
Eastview's Baker said he's grateful technology has kept the church accessible to most everyone during the pandemic, but he said it can't replace the sense of community that a church provides.
“People long for it, people want to interact with other people, so we are going to have to figure out how if that’s their take and they want to do the worship thing on a Sunday morning (online), then we have to figure out a way to get them into smaller groups of maybe two families or three families,” Baker said.
Eastview still hosts small group meetings for bible study, some in-person and some virtually with Baker noting the pandemic likely will likely change how people worship long after COVID.
The McLean County Interfaith Alliance is hosting an online event called “Hope in a Weary World’ for people who are struggling this time of year. It will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday.
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