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Communities Struggle To Decide Whether To Resume In-Person Worship

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

During the pandemic, houses of worship have had to be on the lookout for their congregations' spiritual and physical well-being. That's meant some difficult decisions for religious leaders. The Mountain West News Bureau's Madelyn Beck reports on how two churches in one city are navigating the dilemma.

MADELYN BECK, BYLINE: Standing outside St. John the Evangelist Catholic Cathedral on a sunny Friday morning, things almost seem normal again, people back to attending daily Mass. But this is happening in Boise, Idaho, where the number of people testing positive for the virus is skyrocketing. Jose Jose Rodriguez says he's glad to be back in church. St. John's was closed during part of the pandemic but now holds Mass inside seven days a week.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ: We truly believe in the presence of Jesus. He is truly present in the Mass. So we've really missed it.

BECK: Idaho allowed people to re-enter churches early on as part of its first phase of reopening in May. Some disagreed with the move, calling it too early. But Rodriguez compares attending Mass to watching a ballgame on TV versus in person.

RODRIGUEZ: It's just so much more when you're physically there. It brings it up to a different level.

BECK: He feels safe inside. Everyone was distanced to every other pew and many people were wearing or holding masks as they came out. St. John's is following recommendations of the Catholic Diocese of Boise. As part of reopening, communications director Gene Fadness says the bishop weighed a range of input.

GENE FADNESS: We have people who, on one end, are saying, you know, we need to open churches up. We need to have faith that God will protect us, and we don't need to listen to the government (laughter). And then you have those on the other hand that say, you know, lock everything down, no public worship at all. We shouldn't be having Mass period.

BECK: The church had to carefully weigh both medical science and religious convictions. The bishop excused those with real health concerns from attending Mass. But he also allowed congregations to start meeting again while following specific protocols, like regularly disinfecting high-traffic areas and providing hand sanitizer. However, the diocese guidelines don't explicitly limit singing inside, which medical experts say is a highly effective way to spread the coronavirus. And while the protocols recommend masks, they don't require them.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

DAVE DECKARD: Hello again, everyone, and welcome to Shepherd of the Valley's weekly worship service.

BECK: Some churches have thoughtfully come to another conclusion. Dave Deckard is pastor of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, and he's been giving online sermons like this one since late March. He says church leaders thought very carefully about whether to get back together in person.

DECKARD: Do we exist to care about ourselves as an institution and support ourselves? Are we the center of the universe? Or are we here to do something good amongst people around us?

BECK: For the last decade, Sonia Daley has been a member of Shepherd of the Valley. While she misses gathering for worship and fellowship, she says the congregation didn't want to reopen its doors until it could reopen to everyone, including its older and more vulnerable members.

SONIA DALEY: I can't argue with that, you know? Like I said, it's sad that we can't meet for now, but it's certainly the safer thing to do.

BECK: And her church made its decision to stay online in conjunction with other Lutheran churches around the region, which created a task force to consider how and whether to reopen. Shepherd of the Valley Pastor Dave Deckard doesn't see this as a matter of his church's beliefs being in conflict with the right thing to do.

DECKARD: It does no good to gather in the name of faith that says love your neighbor as yourself if by gathering you are actually harming your neighbor.

BECK: And so Shepherd of the Valley has decided to love their neighbors by keeping the doors closed for now. For NPR News, I'm Madelyn Beck in Boise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.