SALINAS, Calif. (KION) It has been over two months since mosques, synagogues and churches all over the Central Coast have had to adjust to a new way of worship.
Now, new and eased state guidelines are allowing the faithful to return under one roof, even as some faith leaders are still deciding when and how to re-open.
“You know, there’s an old… there’s an old Sunday School song that says the Church is not the building, the Church is not the steeple, the Church is God’s people,” said Reverend Andy Rausch, the pastor of Northminster Presbyterian Church in Salinas.
Reverend Rausch has been holding church services in the church parking lot for a few weekends now. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most of life as we knew it, Rausch closed down his church on East Alvin Drive in North Salinas almost immediately.
Services moved online until recently, when drive-in preaching and worship was allowed.
“It has been the most amazing experience. The first week, we were just so excited to see this many cars, we just had no idea,” said Reverend Rausch.
“In order to collectively gather together to praise and worship God… a remote experience is not the same as gathering with the saints,” said Marlisa Blueford, a member of New Hope Baptist Church in East Salinas.
At New Hope Baptist, the pastor has a different take on the issue. The church has defied county health rules leaving its doors open for in-person services these past couple months, even as they do implement social distancing and other COVID-19 health safety protocols.
“Our steadfast resolve was that the church never, ever should’ve been closed," said Reverend Artis Smith, the pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Salinas.
For Reverend Smith and his wife, staying open against the health order was a matter of faithful conviction, a commitment to what they believe God has mandated.
“Our ears are in tune to what He has spoken to our hearts, and so He has never once told us that we ought to shut our doors," said Reverend Smith. "Because of that reason, we have maintained our position that the church is absolutely essential in this pandemic.”
Churches like Reverend Smith's believe California's new, eased guidelines for houses of worship are still too restrictive. Under these new guidelines, locals who go back to their local mosque, synagogue or church will face temperature checks at the door.
Congregants will also be asked to use hand sanitizer, wear face coverings and physically distance. Staff will have to disinfect surfaces, stop the sharing of religious items like passing the offering plate and modify certain practices among a myriad of other regulations.
But there is also a 25% or 100 person cap on congregation size as well as guidelines discouraging singing, guidelines that are upsetting some.
Reverend Rausch is intent on following state and county rules nonetheless.
“I don’t see this as a constitutional freedom of worship issue, I see this as a public health issue. And if we’re going to be the church, we need to be an example to the community," said Rausch.
He has not started indoor services yet; it is up to the church board, also known as the Elders in Session in the Presbyterian system of church governance, to decide whether to open the doors. Rausch's congregation is older.
For these two pastors, who come from different backgrounds and denominations, it comes down to a matter of what their faith is telling them.
“We are law-abiding citizens, we will follow the mandates that the government laid out," said Reverend Smith. "But when that law tries to triumph or supersedes the law of God, we absolutely obey the law of God.”
“The key thing to really worship our God is to love our neighbors and to care for one another. So when we’re doing that, we’re serving God and we’re following God’s law," said Reverend Rausch. "So I think it’s important for us to be safe and to listen to what the smart people have to tell us to do.”