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V.S. houses of worship open for in-person services

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In the past six months, houses of worship, like many time-honored institutions have undergone a number of changes, as coronavirus restrictions forced many to switch to virtual services. Now, as those restrictions loosen, many in Valley Stream have opened or begun to open their doors to in-person worship.

Attendance is lower, local faith leaders reported, but that did not come as a shock, they said, after many of their congregants expressed to them fear of returning and contracting the virus.

Before the pandemic, Bethlehem Assembly of God was averaging 1,700 members at Sunday church services at its locations in Valley Stream and Rosedale. Even after recently opening a second location in Valley Stream, Bethlehem Assembly still only sees about 500 people at its services in all three locations on Sundays, its pastor the Rev. Steven Milazzo reported. His church reopened to indoor services on July 12.

Despite the lower attendance rates, Milazzo said that the importance of faith institutions is greater than ever.    

“This is the card that we have been dealt and we have to trust God in this, while doing our part to stay safe,” Milazzo said of the pandemic. “The church needs to be there to support, comfort and encourage people during this time.”

His services, he said, require all participants to register beforehand and maintain at least six feet of distance between one another unless they belong to the same family. Masks must be worn at all times, and congregants are escorted to their seats one at a time. Railings and surfaces are also wiped down before, after and during services. 

“We want to be part of the solution, not the problem, and I know soon we will get to the other side of all this,” Milazzo said. “I hope that people everywhere will learn that knowing and loving God, being close to family and building positive relationships are all things we can do positively during this pandemic.”

The Valley Stream Presbyterian Church opened to in-person services more recently, on Sept. 12, the Rev. Kymberly Clemons-Jones reported, and so far is holding them outdoors only.

“Our first service back went well and about 40 people showed up,” she said. “Offerings and tithes are lower than usual because people are unemployed and lost their jobs due to the pandemic, but we are remaining prayerful and hopeful about our future.”

Clemons-Jones said she plans to hold the Saturday 3 p.m. services, which are new for the congregation, outside until colder weather forces a return indoors, and every Sunday the Saturday services will be made available to watch online.

“My congregants were not disturbed by the switch in worship day because we have become accustomed to change since the pandemic has changed so many things,” she said. “The most important part is that we are meeting every week and that we remember that God is on his throne.” 

For other faith leaders in Valley Stream who have yet to open their doors to in-person worship, they said that they expect that it will come with challenges requiring a number of changes. 

Temple Hillel in Valley Stream, will hold its first indoor services on the Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur holidays. Although Rabbi Steven Graber said that he is still unsure how many will attend, he said he anticipates that only a few dozen will sign up over coronavirus fears.

“I’m still hopeful that this far into my career my congregation and I can be adaptable, and I’m excited to be able to provide face-to-face spiritual connection, even if it is in a much smaller way,” he said. “Even if we can’t see each other all the time in person, we are still friendly with one another and we have camaraderie through communication over emails and through phone calls.”

On Sept. 20, Grace United Methodist Church in Valley Stream will also open its doors to indoor services for the first time since the pandemic hit. In the meantime, members have been attending services and communicating electronically using Zoom, Whats App, texting, Google Meets and conference calls. Virtual services and electronic communication will continue after the church opens for indoor services. 

“Many people have said they don’t know if they want to go back to indoor services,” the Rev. Gertude Nation, pastor of the church, said. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to keep people well because Covid-19 can be deadly.”

For the incoming indoor services, Nation said there would be many changes, including temperature checks at the door, an elimination of church choir and singing, touching, greeting, handshaking and hugs. Masks will be required and provided if needed and no more than one person will be allowed in the church bathroom at a time. Fellowship time, or time spent socializing after church, has also been eliminated.  

“This is a matter of life and death, so I’m not complaining about the changes that will take place when we open again,” she said. “I’m excited and I can’t wait to see my congregation again.”