Jaffrey church plans to hold in-person service; others say they’ll stay online

  • Pastor Jeffrey Tibbetts speaks to congregants at a drive-in Easter service at Redeeming Grace Pentecostal Holiness Church in Jaffrey on April 12. The church plans to hold an indoor service this weekend despite the state’s social distancing guidelines. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Sandra Jean waves people in to a drive-in Easter service at Redeeming Grace Pentecostal Holiness Church in Jaffrey on April 12. The church plans to hold an indoor service this weekend despite the state’s social distancing guidelines. Ben Conant / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • A drive-in Easter service at Redeeming Grace Pentecostal Holiness Church in Jaffrey on Sunday, April 12, 2020. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 5/29/2020 3:43:26 PM

At least one Jaffrey church plans to open its doors this weekend, while state and federal officials send mixed messages about the safety of churches beginning in-person services for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.

President Donald Trump announced that churches should be considered essential, and said he would go to bat for institutions that opened their doors as soon as that Sunday against their individual state guidelines.

Gov. Chris Sununu has contested that the handling of reopening states is in the hands of their individual governors, and told WMUR that while he was willing to consider guidance from the Centers for Disease Control on the matter, to see if there are ways to open churches safely, that it is important to avoid potential outbreak clusters.

Jeffrey Tibbetts, pastor of Redeeming Grace in Jaffrey, said that with or without the president’s Friday pronouncement, his congregation planned to open its doors this Sunday, to mark the Christian holiday of the Pentecost.

“We are officially opening this coming Sunday,” Tibbetts said Tuesday. “We are going ahead.”

Currently, the state is still under Sununu’s “Stay-at-Home 2.0” guidelines, which have allowed certain businesses to open with government guidelines, one of which is that groups shouldn’t gather in numbers larger than 10. However, what avenues there are to enforce that are murky, Jaffrey Police Chief Todd Muilenberg said Wednesday.

Muilenberg said Jaffrey police had not had any complaints about gatherings or other potential violations until Tuesday, when a complaint about a business allegedly not following reopening procedures was reported to police. Muilenberg said police are currently looking into what enforcement authority they have, if any.

“Our guidance has been a little vague,” Muilenberg said.

Tibbetts said the opening was spurred both by the significance of the Christian holiday this weekend, which marks the descent of the holy spirit upon the Apostles, but also the “lack of movement” he’s seen on the part of the government to reopen churches.

“For us, it’s a matter of there’s been so little official movement here in the state of New Hampshire. Plus, my personal conviction that churches are essential,” Tibbetts said. He added that the decision wasn’t made “in a vacuum,” but with consultation from other church leaders within his denomination and also looking to other states’ re-opening processes.

When it comes to how the services will be run, Tibbetts said his congregation will have the ability to make their own decisions about their comfort level. Those who wear personal protective equipment and maintain social distancing will be respected – but so will those who choose not to, he said.

“My perspective is more about the value of the individual, and giving them room for the differences in how people are responding to this,” said Tibbetts, who added the issue has become one that’s divisive, socially, and he doesn’t want to see it brought into his church. “I want people on both sides to be able to be comfortable. As long as people are honoring one another, I think we’ll be okay.”

Tibbetts said he doesn’t have serious concerns about spreading the virus, noting that there are more people in the supermarket or Walmart than will be attending church services. Those who have concerns or are ill or immunocompromised can stay home, and shouldn’t be judged for that decision, either, Tibbetts said.

“We’ve done this totally different than any other time in our country. When it’s flu season, people with compromised immune systems, they stay home. This is the first time in our history we’ve told the whole world, ‘You all stay home.’ And I don’t think it’s healthy to be isolated the way we have,” Tibbetts said.

Not ready to open

Other Monadnock area churches say they’re continuing to hold church services virtually, until there is clearer guidance from the state on how and when it is safe to open their doors again.

Rev. Randy Ferrara, one of the leaders of the Francestown Community Church, said his view is that it is up to the individual churches whether to open for in-person services or not, saying the constitutional right to religious freedom protects that. However, he said, Francestown Community Church is going to wait and follow the state guidelines.

“We’re not going to be doing anything until we know we’re safe,” Ferrara said.

Part of that, he said, is the church’s responsibility to protect not only its congregation, but the wider community.

“We haven’t had one infection in Francestown. If we, as the church, caused a bunch of infections to start, what would that say about us? We’re still feeling isolated, and it’s hard. We want to be back together, and we can’t be,” Ferrera said. “But we’re still going to wait on the governor.”

Pastor Ken Whitson of the New Ipswich Congregational Church said they, too, are going to continue with virtual services until guidelines from the CDC or the state approves churches reopening.

So will Greenville Community Christian Church, said Pastor William Broughton.

“The general consensus is we want to be considerate of others’ health concerns, particularly those who are older or already have other health issues,” Broughton said. He said even after the state approves churches to re-open, Greenville Community Christian Church will continue its livestreaming – a practice Broughton said he had to learn on the fly this spring when churches closed – so that those who have lingering concerns can still watch from home.

“A lot of us miss getting together in person. There’s no real substitute for that. We’re very anxious to open again. But just not now,” Broughton said.

Pastor Kenny Laughters, of the Next Level Church in Peterborough, said the church, which has been giving a virtual service to all of its congregations in several states, is also going to continue that practice.

“Even with the president saying churches are ‘essential’ there’s still a lot of guidelines in place,” Laughters said. “We’re not going to re-open until we can offer a better experience in person than we can online. With gathering restrictions, we’re not there yet.”

Laughters said it’s unlikely that will happen until the state approves gatherings of 250 people or more.

Laughters said while Next Level’s experiences – as they call their sermons – have always utilized technology and streamed their content, the coronavirus has made the congregations look at how they can serve their communities outside of the walls of the church. The Next Level churches have all banded together to write “Letters of Hope” for example, to firefighters, police, nursing homes, hospitals, prison inmates, and others impacted by the virus.

“We’re trying to love people in that way. We’re trying to find ways to see hope rise out of what could be despair. It’s been very encouraging that way,” Laughters said.

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