Legally Allowed To Open, Some Churches Choose To Remain Closed

May 28, 2020

Earlier this month, a U.S. District Court sided with church leaders ⁠— and ruled against Gov. Roy Cooper's prohibition on in-person church gatherings. After Cooper chose not to pursue an appeal of the provisional restraining order, thousands of churchgoers returned to pews across the state.

But thousands more did not ⁠— choosing, instead, to offer a different definition of "love thy neighbor."

Isaac Villegas is the pastor of the Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship. In his church, the sanctuary features large windows that allow natural light to shine in, giving the space a bright and airy feel.

The congregation of about 80 people takes pride in singing and worship, but Villegas said it's better to be safe than sorry, in terms of keeping the doors closed.

"We've never set up online giving or anything like that, just because of our church culture," Villegas said, noting that the church has not seen a major financial drop. "But people have been faithful and mailing in their checks to our treasurer who deposits them electronically."

Villegas, however, has concerns about the longterm. 

"I'm worried about nine months, a year, five years down the road, what's this going to mean in terms of the sustainability of our nation's religious communities, the nonprofits in general?" he said. "I mean, we've just never seen these kind of unemployment numbers."

"Mutual Aid" is a tradition within the Mennonite community. It's a commitment they make to one another that they take care of each other spiritually, physically and financially  ⁠—  and has resulted in deacons directly offering monetary support to members, when needed.

This kind of one-to-one connection takes on many forms in a congregation. 

Mindy Douglas is a reverend at First Presbyterian Church in Durham. The church is also closed to in-person gatherings, but she's been working hard to support the congregation and community.

The massive downtown church has a congregation more than five times the size of the Mennonite Fellowship in Chapel Hill. Even though it's been a while since members could walk in to their church with stained-glass windows and wooden pews, Douglas makes sure they're reaching everyone they can through their online worship experience.

"We believe that as a church, we are the people, and we're not a building, so we are able to worship together," she said. "Not every church can do the live streaming or the online worship but we are and we are fortunate to be able to do that. We do believe that wherever we are, God is with us and that we are able to worship."

First Presbyterian's financial situation is stable enough to where it has been able to set up a stimulus check fund, so that members who are able can donate their share from the government to worthy causes.

"We're set up this time so that people could give their their money to the church and then that money will be distributed to nonprofit center organizations that are feeding folks and helping folks who are in the greatest crisis right now," Douglas said.

Members have donated to the Durham Public Schools Foundation to help feed students and to Greater Emmanuel Temple Pentecostal's feeding program.

The North Carolina Council of Churches represents denominations and individual churches across the state. The organization focuses on issues like economic justice and development and equality. Executive Director Jennifer Copeland thinks places of worship should adhere to pandemic policies with "love thy neighbor" in mind.

"The best way we can love our neighbors is by keeping our distance from them," Copeland said. "Not because we're afraid they'll make us sick, but because we're afraid we might make them sick. What is good for my neighbor? What can I do that helps my neighbor. It's never a selfish individual motivation."