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Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Guidebooks for the Rosh Hashanah service at Mizpah Congregation on Sept 30, 2019.

Passover by Zoom. Easter by Zoom. Ramadan at home. Drive-thru communion. Faith communities around Hamilton County continue to grapple with the coronavirus and its far-reaching impacts.

As the virus closes in on six months in the Chattanooga region, a few local faith communities remain online only and say they will stay that way for the foreseeable future. That means even more holidays experienced through a screen or celebrated apart with masks.

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, is three weeks away, with Yom Kippur following closely behind. Services at Mizpah Congregation will feature an organist and a single singer, said Rabbi Craig Lewis. The typically festive day of the new year will not feature a choir. Instead, the temple will be largely empty and people watching the service at home will be able to unmute themselves to read from the prayer book.

"Our leadership has been quite cautious and we're under agreement that we want to be among the last people to get back to in-person meetings rather than the first," Lewis said. "I think people are anxious to get back together, but I think people are understanding."

The wrinkle of allowing people to unmute and read passages will hopefully create a sense of community while staying apart, Lewis said. The congregation has been online for months with the exception of doing bar and bat mitzvah services in-person, with masks, social distancing, no music and a capacity of no more than 25 people.

"We are dipping our toe back in the water of some in-person events with controlled numbers and social distancing," Lewis said.

Faith communities throughout the area are experimenting with varying levels of precaution when gathering for worship. Some are promoting distancing but not necessarily masks. Others are asking elderly and at-risk members to watch from home in a virtual-real life hybrid service.

Hanging over these choices, though, is the threat of spread of the virus that as of Friday has killed 74 Hamilton County residents. In June, Westmore Church of God in Cleveland hosted a regional worship service for the denomination that became a superspreader event with dozens sick and at least three deaths from the virus. In May, at least three cases were linked to a church in Ringgold, Georgia.

 

'THIS IS WHAT IT IS'

In early May, while Chattanooga was dealing with the first weeks of the coronavirus' economic impacts, the Rev. Carlos Williams, senior pastor at Orchard Knob Missionary Baptist Church, said his church was prepared to stay closed until a viable vaccine was available.

Williams said this week his church remains steadfast in that commitment. Leaders of the church gather every few months to assess whether it is safe to reopen and look at the progress of the possible vaccines.

Like most churches and ministries, Orchard Knob has taken a financial hit during the pandemic but the community has remained strong, Williams said. He does not feel any pressure from his congregation to return to in-person services, he said.

"We just feel like we're going to play it safe," he said. "We're going to play it safe and exercise what we feel is godly wisdom. And that's not any stone that I'm throwing at any other church. I can only speak for Orchard Knob and what we're doing."

Around 10 members have been sick with the virus and the church on East Third Street hosted COVID-19 testing this summer, both of which helped put the severity of the pandemic in perspective, Williams said.

Even if Orchard Knob reopened its doors on Sunday morning, Williams said he expects many people would still stay home rather than take a risk.

"I think everybody went through that season of gloom, frustration, and I really think for a lot of people they've gone through that," he said. "And I think now for the most part people have settled into the reality of this is what it is."

 

CHANGES TO WORSHIP

Fridays at the Islamic Center have taken a different style in recent months. The carpet in the mosque is marked to keep the faithful at least 6 feet apart during prayers and the weekly sermon. The traditional gathering in a line, shoulders touching, to perform the Salah has been replaced by a more physically distant form of the prayer.

A fraction of the few hundred people that would typically gather on a Friday are coming now, said Bassam Issa, co-founder of the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga. Those older than 60 are encouraged to stay home. Others do not want to take a risk.

"So far it's been working, three months into it," he said. "Thank God, we don't have any cases in the Islamic community at all."

Annoor Academy of Chattanooga is functioning in a hybrid model. Some families of the approximately 80 children enrolled chose to do online-only learning. Those children log onto computers at home and see their classroom, teachers and classmates live throughout the day, Issa said.

The school board also bought masks and face shields to protect students, and temperatures of children are taken regularly during the five-day school week.

"It is awkward but it becomes routine and they get used to it," Issa said.

Operating the school during the pandemic has come with a cost. Annoor is not running its after-school activities this year. The school's robotics program, which has won regional competitions, is not gathering, Issa said.

 

LOOK TOWARD OUTDOOR SERVICES

On Sunday, New Hope Presbyterian Church will break ground on its new location at Shallowford Road. After more than two years of work on the project, the congregation is invited to come bring their lawn chairs and stay at a distance to watch the ceremony.

For some in the congregation, this will be the first time seeing familiar faces in months.

The church faced some pressure to reopen its sanctuary when the stay-at-home order was first lifted, said the Rev. Candace Worth, pastor of New Hope. But as cases started to rise — including a local surge in the month following — the community decided to stay virtual, she said.

"For the most part, when I talk to people, they'd much rather be safe," Worth said. "They miss being able to see each other face to face, they miss each other and of course they miss regular hymn singing and worship is not exactly the same."

The church is planning a drive-thru communion service for World Communion Day, Oct. 4, Worth said.

Once temperatures cool, likely next month, the church is planning an outdoor service so people can see each other in a safer environment, she said.

Orchard Knob Missionary Baptist plans for something similar for a Sunday in September and October, Williams said.

"We feel like that is going to be really good for the morale of our church, just giving them an opportunity to see each other, and that changes things from not having to do so much screen time," he said.

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

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