How Chattanooga churches are weighing reopening during the coronavirus pandemic

Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / The steeple of Orchard Knob Missionary Baptist Church on a rainy Friday on May 8, 2020. The church is expected to stay closed until there is a viable intervention to stop COVID-19, said the church's pastor Carlos Williams.
Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / The steeple of Orchard Knob Missionary Baptist Church on a rainy Friday on May 8, 2020. The church is expected to stay closed until there is a viable intervention to stop COVID-19, said the church's pastor Carlos Williams.

While the state of Tennessee continues to roll back restrictions related to the coronavirus and some businesses are allowed to reopen, the Rev. Carlos Williams will not ask his flock to return to the pews this Sunday morning.

Nor the next Sunday, nor the one after that.

The senior pastor of Orchard Knob Missionary Baptist Church has every intention of keeping the doors closed for his church - a leading institution in Orchard Knob for more than 130 years - for months, if not the rest of the year.

Williams will not be swayed by the temptation to lead his 500-member church in person. Hair salons can reopen. Retail stores can reopen. But Williams will continue with weekly livestreams.

This is about safety, he said.

"We are using just a very common-sense approach, and that is, we don't feel comfortable reopening until there is a vaccine out there," Williams said.

The average age of the congregation is 60. They are predominantly African American. Across the country, African Americans have been disproportionately infected or killed by the virus, the result of decades of systemic, unequal access to medical care, as well as people of color being more likely to be considered "essential workers" and coming into contact with the virus.

A similar racial disparity in infections has not necessarily been found in Hamilton County, but Williams and other local leaders say there is not enough testing for black Chattanoogans to feel safe.

The Hamilton County Health Department does not track the race or ZIP code of who is being tested, so it is unclear whether testing is reaching all residents. Even the accuracy of antibody tests to determine whether someone was previously infected with the virus are in question. Then there is uncertainty over whether people can be reinfected with the virus.

"At the end of the day, I think we would be contributing to the problem," Williams said about holding in-person services. " I think the guidelines are doable, but once people are back in the flow of meeting, there is a sense of comfortability that comes back and people ease up."

On May 1, Gov. Bill Lee released a series of safety guidelines for churches to use when reopening, such as wearing face masks and encouraging people with COVID-19 symptoms to stay home. Houses of worship were deemed essential under the governor's executive orders and could stay open, though nearly all chose to hold live-streamed or drive-in services.

Despite the green light to gather in person, the majority of Chattanooga's churches apparently will keep their doors closed for now.

(READ MORE: People are back in the pews as COVID-19 restrictions begin loosening throughout Tennessee)

For Williams' church, that means no services until there is a viable medical intervention or a vaccine, something health experts caution may not be available until the opening months of 2021, at the earliest.

The church will take a financial hit with the decision, as it has in the past few months, Williams said. But expenses are down with the church building being closed. They can lean on savings and what donations are still coming in through the online services, too.

"We really feel strongly that we could honestly sustain, without a major hit, for the rest of this year," he said.

'Have confidence that God is at work'

As the threat of COVID-19 became more clear in Hamilton County and organizations began shutting down, houses of worship throughout the region established task forces to monitor the situation. Many relied on the physicians, lawyers, city employees or public health workers in their congregations to help make decisions.

Rivermont Presbyterian Church, like hundreds of churches throughout the area, is navigating the decision to reopen in ways similar to schools, restaurants and concert halls. There is the decision to reopen the sanctuary, but there are also child care and community meals and other church activities to consider, each of which carries a different level of risk, said Clay Thomas, senior pastor at Rivermont.

His church's task force has not chosen a reopen date. The constantly changing circumstances of the coronavirus – with evolving guidelines on wearing masks, getting tested and reopening businesses - mean the church must be flexible based on what the data shows, Thomas said.

"We will be extremely conservative with how and when we reopen," he said.

In the meantime, Rivermont is working to improve its online worship experience. The pastor cautioned people not to be anxious about their favorite restaurant reopening when their church is not.

"I think people think a church not reconvening in a physical space says something about their faith," Thomas said. "Like if other people are gathering in places, but the church isn't, it says the church is not important. I would say our faith says that we cannot meet in person and still have confidence that God is at work."

(READ MORE: Physicians urge Tennessee residents to stay apart, say state is not ready to reopen amid coronavirus)

Even when churches allow people to return, it is not guaranteed the pews will be filled. More than three-quarters of Americans think social distancing should continue, even if governments lift restrictions, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted in mid-April.

When the doors of Hickory Valley Baptist Church are open again on some future Sunday morning, Dr. David Kemp believes his congregation can follow the guidelines given by the state.

The church's auditorium is big enough for members to spread out. There will be hand sanitizer and masks available for people, too. Some church members want to return immediately, others are much more cautious, Kemp said. The church has not made a decision yet.

"There is so much uncertainty," Kemp said. "None of us have been through anything like this before. There is no manual that says this is what you have to do, these are the steps you have to do."

The senior pastor said he is monitoring the daily statistics from the Hamilton County Health Department, though he does not make decisions based on those numbers alone. The total case count is only from the people who have been tested, which as of Thursday represented less than 2% of the county's population.

In recent weeks, Kemp has driven around eastern Hamilton County to look at the destruction caused by the tornadoes almost a month ago. What he sees, on top of the health and economic impacts of the virus, has moved him to pray more, he said.

On Tuesday morning, Kemp was working on his upcoming sermon, the working title of which was, "Hope in the midst of devastation all around you."

Open pews coming soon

Among Chattanooga's largest churches, their size provides considerable advantages to reopening even as they must navigate keeping hundreds of people safe.

Brainerd Baptist created a reopening plan, though in-person services would not resume until June at the earliest, said Micah Fries, senior pastor. The church is watching to see whether Tennessee and Georgia's reopening plans cause a spike in cases, he said.

"We want two or three weeks to go by after the state opens up before we even put a date on the calendar," Fries said.

When the day comes to resume in-person services, the faithful at Brainerd Baptist will have the option of around 18 services spread across five campuses, more than double the number of services previously offered. People will need to pre-register online for the service to ensure no more than 100 people attend. Families will need to stay six feet apart from other families. Temperatures will be taken at the door, Fries said.

The church purchased a large amount of an alcohol-based sanitizer to use to clean every chair, bathroom and common area before, during and after every service, Fries said.

"No matter what you do there's going to be some level of risk, unless you stay in your home," the pastor said. "We are just trying to minimize that risk."

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Catholics and members of Abba's House will be able to return later this month. On Wednesday, Bishop Richard Stika sent a letter to churches in the Diocese of Knoxville that included guidelines for their scheduled reopening on the last weekend of May. The letter included flow charts of how people should receive communion and how to keep pews clear.

The first four-week phase of Abba's House's reopening plan begins May 17. Denise Craig, executive pastor of operations, said the church's leadership began planning its strategy before the governor released his guidelines but they did not feel they were prepared to open this Sunday.

"We just felt we needed a few more weeks to make sure we had everything prepared," Craig said. "Just like when the restaurants opened, some opened right away and others said we needed a little more time."

The church will continue offering an online service, Craig said, and she believes they will be able to keep people six feet apart in the space. Abba's House has a 3,100-seat auditorium, and so could have the space for about 1,200 people without breaking social distancing guidelines, Craig said.

While Abba's House has posted the second phase of the plan to begin in June and the third in August, only these few upcoming weeks are actually solid, Craig said. Everything else is subject to change.

For Abba's House, and every house of worship in Chattanooga, the worship services of six months ago may never return.

"To me, going back to normal, I'm not sure that's a thing," Craig said. "I think it's a new normal and I'm not sure we all know what that is yet."

Contact Wyatt Massey at or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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