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Local churches plan ‘regathering’ Sunday

As some area businesses look to reopen under social-distancing guidelines aimed to slow the spread of COVID-19, so, too, do churches, which were not required by law to close, but which did so out of concern for their congregants.

“We are not violating any laws,” said Pastor Gary G. Dull of The Faith Baptist Church of Altoona. “The regulations for businesses do not apply to the church.”

Faith Baptist is among a group of churches set to open Sunday morning for services, albeit with new seating restrictions and mask requirements. Dull has informed local law enforcement and elected officials that the church is planning to open.

“I really don’t know what to anticipate at our church or other churches participating” in what is being called a “Regathering of the Church,” Dull said, but he expects quite a few people will return to houses of worship.

“Our plan is to start slowly,” he said.

There will be no Sunday school, and youth programs will remain on hold as the church finds its way to a new normal, he said.

“I think we’re going to have a pretty good turnout” as people are eager to get out of their homes and return to church, Dull said, not only for the worship service but to socialize with others.

“We’ve been separated now for 10 weeks,” he said. “From what I hear, people are looking forward to coming.”

A great crowd of people could “cause an issue to a certain degree,” he admitted, but added Faith Baptist has contingency plans in case a large number of people show up.

Due to social-distancing guidelines, Dull said the sanctuary will only be about 25 percent full for the 10:30 a.m. service. Families who live together will be seated together. Otherwise, people will be seated to allow at least 6 feet of space between them.

Once the sanctuary reaches capacity, congregants will be directed to the fellowship hall, where they can view the service on closed-circuit TV.

Those who are unable to be seated in either location can remain in their cars and listen to the service, he said, as the church purchased a low-power radio transmitter that reaches into all three parking lots.

For those who stay in their cars, Dull will “go around and greet people” after the service.

Dull anticipates people staying around for a little while once the service is over.

“I’m expecting people to stand around and talk because they haven’t seen each other in weeks,” he said. “We are asking people to wear face masks to protect other people.”

Dull said a committee has put together a manual of what to expect Sunday morning. The manual also lists the symptoms of COVID-19.

“We’re also offering to take their temperature,” he said, using no-touch thermometers.

The committee has been planning this opening for some time, Dull said, noting that about 20 people will be working around the church on Sunday morning with seating people, cleaning and other tasks. “It will be quite an extravaganza,” he said.

“We’ve had meetings and have gone over all the safety features we need to do,” he said, noting the aim is to provide a safe service for all those who come.

Those attending services at the Bedford Bible Church will find some changes, too, said Pastor Martin Wickens.

The church, located in the Lakewood Manor section of Bedford, regularly saw about 110 congregants each Sunday before COVID-19.

A group will deep clean the church on Saturday. Sunday will have services at 9:30 and 10:45 a.m., Wickens said. The church will be cleaned between the two services.

In addition, notices went out to congregants asking those with last names A-H to attend the first service and the remainder to attend the second service, Wickens said.

This split should result in space for social distancing, he said, adding that he knows some people who are supportive of the church reopening but will not be attending due to health concerns.

Other measures the church is taking include roping off every other pew and removing all hymn books, pens and cards in the pews and all toys from the nursery.

Hand sanitizer and masks will be handed out at the door, along with handouts for the week. Those paper items left at the end of the service will be destroyed, Wickens said. “Nothing will be reused.”

The church is also asking everyone to keep their mask on during the service, unless it must be removed for health reasons.

Only one or two hymns will be sung, he added, and even during singing, masks should be worn because there is some concern that singing can cause droplets to travel further.

Also, in regard to seating, “who you travel to church with, you sit with.”

In addition, the service time has been cut to about 40 minutes and will include a children’s talk. There will be no Sunday school classes.

“We’re looking at the way local businesses are operating and continue to operate” for guidance in keeping people safe, he said.

Wickens said he will continue to livestream the service and the church is working to set up a telephone number so people can dial in to listen to the service. That option should be up and running by Sunday, he said.

Pastors taking part in the “Regathering” are doing so with utmost caution, Dull said.

“I pray every day that the Lord will give the medical scientists everything we need to know … but there are so many unanswered questions. We need to be careful as we go forward to whatever this new normal is.”

While caution is needed, Dull said, “we need each other.”

The church is likened to the Body of Christ, and in the Bible, the Body of Christ is likened to the physical body. Just like a person can’t live without their heart or lungs, the church can’t live without its people.

“Being separated isn’t good,” he said.

“We believe it’s now time for us to come back together, though cautiously and carefully,” he said. “We believe the Lord is leading us to do it.”

Dealing with the corona­virus mandates has been difficult, Dull said, as pastors have not been able to visit people in hospitals, nursing homes or their residences.

Telephone calls and social media have been used, but nothing beats in-person visits, Dull said. “I really felt bad … for being a pastor for over 46 years, I miss that” closeness of an in-person visit.

For people in need or to just check in on families, Dull said, “I do call them and that’s all right, but you’d rather be able to talk to them face-to-face.”

Dull said he’s heard there’s been an uptick in heart attacks, anxiety, blood pressure and strokes and believes “it’s because people are fearful and need each other.”

“That’s one of the reasons we’re doing this,” he said. “We need the encouragement we can derive from each other. That doesn’t just relate to the church, that relates to the community. I hope we can get back to that.”

“We are certainly looking forward to seeing each other again,” Wickens said.

There are 14 churches in Bedford, Blair and Huntingdon counties that have announced plans take part in the Regathering on Sunday:

– The Altoona Bible Church — Pastor Stewart W. McCelland

– The Bedford Bible Church — Pastor Martin Wickens

– The Calvary Baptist Church of Altoona — Pastor Ron Anderson

– The Champion Life Center of Altoona — Pastor James Baldwin

– The Claysburg Bible Church — Pastor Keith Showalter

– The Clear Ridge Fellowship — Pastor Todd Bowles

– The Community Baptist Church of Altoona — Pastor Mark Mahan

– The Everett Grace Brethren Church — Pastor Melvin Van Orman

– The Faith Baptist Church of Altoona — Pastor Gary G. Dull

– The Foot of Ten Independent Baptist Church of Duncansville — Pastor David Huston

– The Liberty Independent Baptist Church of Everett — Pastor Clifford Swankler

– The Reservoir Bible Church of Hollidaysburg — Pastor Tom Butler

– The Williamsburg Independent Bible Church — Pastor Joseph Weber

– The Woodcock Valley Bible Church of James Creek — Pastor Barry Yingling.

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