STILL KEEPING THE FAITH: Local churches reopen tentatively

Congregants gathered Sunday under the steeple at Leesville United Methodist Church for only the third time since reopening from the coronavirus shutdown. Staff photo by Tony Baughman

The Rev. Bruce Sayre, pastor at Leesville United Methodist Church, stood at the front door in the shadow of the towering steeple and greeted a few members of the congregation last Sunday morning as they trickled in to the 11 o’clock service.

He smiled, his voice was inviting, and he seemed genuinely glad to see visitors. About the only way anyone would ever know this was different from any other Sunday was the full-face plastic shield he wore covering his face. This is Sunday worship in the age of coronavirus.

Pastor Bruce Sayre

Three months ago, Leesville United Methodist and other area churches had to modify and adjust their traditions and usual rituals when COVID-19 forced houses of worship to close. Leesville UMC adjusted by launching, for the first time, a new streaming service that beamed the Sunday morning service live from the fellowship to the community (and the greater world).

Three weeks ago, with the Governor giving the go-ahead for South Carolina to reopen, the doors to the sanctuary flung open again.

“They keep saying, ‘We want so much to get back together,’ so they miss it – but they know what they’re missing,” Pastor Sayre said, sitting an empty pew after the service. It was one of the pews closed to worshipers with a simple strip of blue paper tape. “As long as they’re saying ‘We want to get back; we want to have communion; we want to be able to do our baptisms,’ I take that to be real good spiritual health.”

The financial health of the church seems to have weathered the pandemic too. Pastor Sayre says that giving is actually up, as people have mailed in or dropped by the usual offerings – even as the usual passing of the plate has been suspended at the morning worship. The thin gold-toned plates now sit near the exits as a matter of personal health and safety.

Last Sunday, fewer than 40 parishioners gathered under the steeple for the service. Still, the pastor – who has announced that he will retire next summer after decades in ministry – remains encouraged by the faithfulness of those hearty few.

Many of them wore masks throughout the service, and at the pastor’s urging, no one stood and sang (and thus, spread no airborne virus) as a soloist performed the spirituals. Even the traditional hymnals in the pews were removed; the lyrics were printed on the back of a single-sheet bulletin.

“They are looking forward to the time they can come back for all these other activities they’ve missed out on,” he said. “I take that to be a good spiritual sign.”

What the future might hold for corporate worship as case numbers continue to spike, only the Lord truly knows. Nonetheless, at Leesville UMC, the faithful are still keeping the faith – both in-person and still online.