As churches across the country have grappled with the decision to stay open or close their doors during the pandemic, the leaders of especially large local facilities such as Crosspoint have been forced to make difficult choices.

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NICEVILLE — Teresa Reese is smack dab in the middle of a spiritual dilemma.


The Niceville resident, who received a kidney transplant five years ago, takes daily medications to suppress her immune system. As such, she’s part of the population at higher risk for COVID-19, the virus that has turned everyday life in America upside down.


Earlier this week, Reese was weighing whether she would risk attending Mass at her hometown parish of Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church.


“Ordinarily, I’m pretty cautious about germs, just because of my immune system,” Reese said. “But now, with this threat of COVID-19, I’m even more nervous. When I see children coughing and sneezing, it makes me uneasy. I really want to go to Mass and receive communion. I need it for my spiritual nourishment. But at the same time, I don’t want to put myself at an unnecessary risk.”


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In ordinary times, Reese would spend four to five days a week at her church. But these are not ordinary times. On Wednesday, the Catholic Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, which is home to more than 63,000 Catholics in 18 counties across Northwest Florida, announced that all public Masses in the diocese would be suspended indefinitely starting on Friday, March 20. All other activities, including social and education programs, have also been suspended.


The news was devastating for Reese, who is involved in multiple activities at her parish.


“More than half of my social life revolves around church and my church friends,” she said. “Now, with all of that canceled, it’s like a whole new life. It’s unsettling and isolating.


“I completely understand the precautions,” she added. “But at this time of crisis in our nation, I need the comfort that I receive from church more than ever. I know that I can call if I need something, but it’s not that same as being there in the church. It makes me feel insecure.”


Difficult decisions


As churches across the country have grappled with the decision to stay open or close their doors during the pandemic, the leaders of especially large local facilities such as Crosspoint have been forced to make difficult choices. Leaders of the church, which has physical campuses in Niceville, North Crestview, South Crestview, Bluewater Bay and Freeport, decided nearly two weeks ago that the only responsible action was to cancel all on-campus services and activities.


Fortunately, the church had already established an online campus in January, making it possible for members of their congregations to participate in both live-streamed and on-demand video versions of their Sunday services.


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While the change has been drastic, the church’s assistant executive pastor, Mike Vlk said Crosspoint’s members have been understanding.


“The vast majority were expecting it,” Vlk said. “During these crazy times, we’re trying to provide some stability to a world of panic. That’s the challenge. Normally, in a time of chaos, people turn to the church. We’re trying to find innovative ways to provide that support. Although we aren’t holding any activities on our campuses, we have staff there in case we are needed.”


In addition to traditional Sunday gatherings at its multiple locations, Crosspoint, which has more than 4,000 members across its campuses, is known for the many small faith groups that often meet in congregants’ homes. Vlk said that for the time being, he and his fellow pastors are encouraging those groups to meet online rather than in person.


“We’re hoping that they can use Skype or Facetime or some other sort of video conferencing,” he said. “We’re still trying to figure everything out.”


‘Gathering in spirit’


While many local churches have made the tough call to cancel their services, some, like First Baptist Church of Navarre, plan to carry on, albeit with adjustments.


“We are still moving forward in faith, still having services,” Pastor Jensen Petersen said. “In accordance with an order from the governor, we’re going to have to limit the number of people who are actually in attendance to 50 per gathering, but we’re going to be gathering in lots of different spaces. We will be gathering in spirit even though we may be separated by walls and buildings.”


While attendance at the church, which normally averages around 150 people per service, was reduced last Sunday, Petersen said he was pleasantly surprised to see some unfamiliar faces in the sanctuary.


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“We actually had some visitors,” he said. “Some were people whose regular churches were not meeting, so they had no other place to worship. Some were people who aren’t regular churchgoers, but in this time of crisis were looking for hope.”


While the church has had to postpone some programs and events, Petersen is doing everything in his power to keep his sanctuary’s doors open for Sunday services.


“They are the backbone of our worship of our God,” he said. “We will adapt and overcome.”


New protocols


Adapting seems to be the key word at many other houses of worship. According to a press release from Laurel Hill Presbyterian Church, the leaders of the small congregation voted to continue to meet, “recognizing particularly in a time of anxiety, Christians seek the comfort of worship and prayer in the community of one another.”


The church will encourage members to practice “social distancing” by sitting at least six feet from each other. At Grace Lutheran Church in Destin, similar accommodations are encouraged.


According to a press release issued by the church, “One major advantage of gathering at Grace is our total sanctuary floor and balcony space. Do not feel bad if you prefer to observe the suggested six-foot social distance.”


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Many churches that are continuing to stay open are making changes to traditional features of their services.


“We usually have the sign of peace, where we would shake hands or hug people next to us,” said Shalimar resident Cathy Halprin, a longtime parishioner at St. Simon’s on the Sound Episcopal Church in Fort Walton Beach. “Last week, our pastor, Father David Knight, showed us a different way by teaching us how to sign the word ‘peace’ in American Sign Language.”


Roger Peadro, pastor of First Community Church of Fort Walton Beach, said his church is making similar adjustments.


“We’ve put hand sanitizers in the pews,” he said with a chuckle. “We have a closing circle at the end of the end of the service, and some people might have bumped elbows instead of holding hands.”


Displacement and isolation


The impact of COVID-19 on churches is affecting more than just regular churchgoers.


Many community organizations and support groups use church facilities for their meetings, and the shuttering of those facilities has meant the cancellation of those services.


“We’ve been hosting the AARP free tax services, but we had to shut that down,” Peadro said. “That’s been a real disappointment for a lot of people.”


As a chaplain for Covenant Hospice in Santa Rosa County, Peadro has witnessed the impact of new restrictions on visiting nursing homes and assisted living facilities as well.


“We keep hearing ‘No, no, no,’” he said. “It’s very sad for people who would like to see a chaplain, because it just adds to their sense of isolation.”


Unholy timing


Ironically, the COVID-19 crisis has coincided with the approach of the seasons that the world’s major religions consider most holy: Lent and Easter for Christians, Passover for Jews, and Ramadan for Muslims. This has left many religious leaders scrambling to make plans to observe these holidays in an uncertain environment.


“I haven’t addressed Easter yet,” Peadro said. “But for many years we’ve partnered with other churches for a community Good Friday service, and that has been canceled.”


The doubt surrounding plans for Holy Week and Easter is especially upsetting to Reese, who works with her church’s Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, or RCIA. The program, which helps to prepare individuals who want to join the Catholic church, traditionally culminates with a service on the night before Easter.


“I went through RCIA myself, and I remember how excited I was about being welcomed into the church at the Easter vigil Mass on Holy Saturday,” she said. “My heart goes out to everyone who has worked so hard to prepare, but now don’t know if they will be able to have the vigil Mass or not.”


Silver linings


While the doubt and uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have led to acts of hoarding and other selfishness, local pastors are quick to point out some silver linings.


The Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese announced that while churches may be closed, Catholic Charities, which has offices in Pensacola, Fort Walton Beach, Panama City and Tallahassee, will continue to provide assistance to people in need.


At Crosspoint, Vlk said members are “stepping up to help each other and the community.”


“Every crisis brings out the best and the worst in people,” he said. “We are working with our missions team to find ways that we can work with other community organizations that serve people.”


Jensen Petersen sees a similar bright side at First Baptist Church of Navarre.


“God is using this to strengthen our people’s faith,” he said. “We’ve seen our members share with one another, care for one another. Because they trust in the Lord, our people are not panicking. This crisis is giving us an opportunity to share our faith.”


Vlk echoes that sentiment.


“We know we’re going to get through this,” he added. “We know God is in charge. When this is all over, we’ll be here on the other side.”