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Feeding the ‘spiritual hunger’: Hilo churches stay strong despite COVID challenges

Hawaii religious leaders were happy to learn Wednesday that Gov. David Ige’s executive order limiting indoor gatherings to 10 people and 50% capacity would not apply to churches.

Ige said during a news conference Tuesday the order would limit the number of people in gyms, bars, restaurants and churches to combat the rise of COVID-19 cases in the state. But a news release issued from his office later that day clarified churches would be exempt.

Regardless, many places of worship in Hilo have not approached 50% capacity since the beginning of the pandemic.

“We’re going to be fine,” said Chris Czarnecki, pastor at First United Protestant Church in Hilo. “We only reopened in May of this year, and less than half (of our congregants) have returned.”

Mark Zier, pastor at Christ Lutheran Church in Hilo, said his church has taken the pandemic “very seriously” since resuming in-person services last August. Attendees wash their hands before entering the church, they sign in so that the church can conduct contact tracing, and they are spaced out to maintain social distancing, among other measures.

“I tell people they’re probably safer at our church than any restaurant,” Zier said.

Other churches have maintained similar practices.

“We’ve stayed at 30% capacity since reopening,” said Deacon David Watson of St. Joseph Catholic Church. “We had to limit it to that in order to keep six feet of distance between people.”

Even New Hope Church in Hilo, which has over 1,000 regular congregants, only began transitioning back to in-person services last month, said lead pastor Sheldon Lacsina. Since then, the church’s in-person congregation has not come close to 50% capacity, he said.

Many churches have been livestreaming Sunday services since the beginning of the pandemic and have continued to this day. The Honpa Hongwanji Hilo Betsuin temple still only conducts Sunday services online, and services by the Kosrae Hilo Congregational Church often receive hundreds of views on YouTube.

“We have some people who won’t ever come back to in-person services,” Zier said.

But while most churches will continue as they have been under the new rules, some parishioners are struggling with limited or no in-person worship services.

“There is a power in the virtual experience, but it’s not as visceral when doing so with others,” said Eric Anderson, pastor at the Church of the Holy Cross in Hilo, which has not held an in-person service in over a year. “We thought we were going to be able to return soon, but then Delta happened.”

“There are people who are okay with online services, but there are a lot of people who are lonely, or they have problems with their families … they have a spiritual hunger, and they need to be around other people,” Lascina said. “It’s like how the charcoal on its own burns out quickly compared to charcoal in a group.”

Zier said the lack of physical contact between congregants has been painful for many.

“I’m used to shaking hands and receiving hugs after service, but we haven’t even been doing fist-bumps,” Zier said.

However, most churches find ways to get by. Larry Silva, Bishop of Honolulu, has extended a dispensation for Catholics allowing them to skip Sunday Mass or Communion without being guilty of mortal sin, and Anderson said his church allows congregants to provide their own sacramental bread and wine at home during online services.

Even though churches are struggling with such low attendance, many pastors were glad to have any congregants at all.

“We’re grateful that even some people are coming by, and we have donations set up online,” said Father Constantino Atinaja of the Malia Puka O Kalani Church in Hilo.

“It’s not ideal, but it’s better than the alternative,” Watson said.

“The people may be few, but the work we do is important,” Czarnecki said. “All are welcome.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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