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Tampa Bay churches slowly return to in-person services

The pandemic brought to light that you don’t need a building to have faith, clergy members say.
At Greater Mt. Zion AME Church in St. Petersburg, services like this one on Sunday, July 11, attract many worshipers, but still not as many as before the pandemic.
At Greater Mt. Zion AME Church in St. Petersburg, services like this one on Sunday, July 11, attract many worshipers, but still not as many as before the pandemic. [ DIVYA KUMAR | Times ]
Published Jul. 13, 2021

Rev. Pablo Diaz was five Sundays into being the new transitional pastor at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Dunedin when much of the world came to a halt last year.

Stay-at-home orders were put in place and Diaz, like many other religious leaders across the country, had to get creative.

It took a while getting used to talking to a camera, he said. And though people sent emails saying they liked the recorded sermons he gave or livestreamed on Facebook and YouTube, it was different not having anyone in front of him.

“Hopefully the words I had given could reach the heart, lift the soul and renew the mind,” he said. “You have to make some adjustments.”

Rev. Pablo Diaz delivers his weekly sermon via Facebook live, an option that remains available after the church has re-opened its doors.
Rev. Pablo Diaz delivers his weekly sermon via Facebook live, an option that remains available after the church has re-opened its doors. [ Photo courtesy St. Andrews Presbyterian Church Facebook page. ]

But as much of normal life resumes, people are slowly coming back for in-person services, which the church has offered since October. A Pew Research survey from March found that about 75 percent of adults in the United States who attend religious services felt comfortable going back to church. Religious leaders around Tampa Bay have seen a similar return to their services.

Still, Diaz wonders what the future holds. Other Pew studies have documented that fewer than half of Americans belong to a house of worship, a statistic that was on the decline before the pandemic.

“What we don’t know yet is the impact that this pandemic has on the life of any church,” Diaz said. “What kind of habits and routines did we create around spirituality that comes out of necessity because of the pandemic that will shape the future of spirituality? That is yet to be seen, and it’s too early to know.”

He posed still more questions: “Where are we going to be a year or two years or three years from now? Did it draw us closer to each other and closer to God? Did we redefine it and find that in some ways we can stay at home and have our own spiritual experience?”

At Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa, Rev. Len Plazewski said attendance has been close to normal since after Easter. The parish transitioned to livestreaming during the pandemic, but has kept one service available through livestreaming since May 22. That’s when the Diocese of St. Petersburg restored the general obligation to attend Mass, allowing an exception for parishioners still unable to come or who feel uncomfortable coming for health reasons.

“As Catholics there is no substitute for Sunday Mass and to receive the Eucharist,” Plazewski said.

Teresa Peterson, spokeswoman for the diocese, said while concrete numbers are not yet available, she’s heard anecdotally that around 80 percent of churchgoers have returned since the diocese lifted the general dispensation from going to Mass.

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Last Sunday during a late morning service at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle, pews were mostly filled with some gaps between parishioners. People exchanged blessings of peace at a distance, with a wave or peace sign.

Kathy Demeza carries supplies while working to prepare the church for Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent, at Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostles in February. In May, the Diocese of St. Petersburg lifted its dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation for most parishioners.
Kathy Demeza carries supplies while working to prepare the church for Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent, at Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostles in February. In May, the Diocese of St. Petersburg lifted its dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation for most parishioners. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Rev. Ralph D’Elia, parochial vicar at the cathedral, said he could tell that people were sad about not being able to see their fellow parishioners. The church has brought back doughnuts and coffee after Mass and people have been staying.

“It’s been beautiful to see people coming back together,” he said. “I sense people have been longing for a sense of community.”

As at Christ the King, one cathedral service is still livestreamed for those who cannot attend in person. Plazewski said the pandemic revealed that weddings and funerals could be livestreamed as well, even in non-pandemic times, when some are unable to be physically present.

“This is one of those once-in-a-generational kind of things,” he said.

Some churches have taken a slower approach to reopening. At the Mt. Caramel Baptist Church in Clearwater, services are still virtual and they are preparing to return to in-person services within a few weeks.

Shirley Mainer, missions director and church secretary, said the approach has largely been due to the fact that their congregation is older. Instead, she said, they’ve focused on making sure their members are connected with faith and information. Worshipers are kept up to date with federal guidelines and offered transportation to testing sites, vaccinations and food services.

“The building itself is not the primary thing,” Mainer said. “The faith is what we stand on.”

Still, Rev. Clarence Williams of the Greater Mt. Zion AME Church in St. Petersburg said there’s something about stepping into a church that can’t be replicated, though it may be a little different.

Last Sunday, parishioners came through the door, stopping first in front of a digital thermometer. Masks requirements remain in place, stickers on the floor remind people to stay 6 feet apart and in-person attendance was a little over 100 people. Before the pandemic, 300 to 400 people attended each week, Williams said.

“Some things probably won’t ever be the same,” he said. “Now that you have more people engaged, you still have that mindset of keeping everyone safe while still bringing them the word of God. ... This thing is something that’s personal. You’re going to have to allow people to get back to their comfort level.”

The sounds from the choir and musicians reverberated differently through the room than they did through the livestream. The tithing box stood for contributions, but CashApp and PayPal were also options.

Williams said that while it upset him not to be there in person for members of his congregation during baptisms, funerals and weddings, transitioning to virtual services has not been all bad. The church now sees more than double the number of people engaging with its services online.

Williams doesn’t see it as a threat to the in-person experience, but a change that fits the times.

“We live in a society where people’s lifestyles are very fluid,” he said. “Especially when people may not have the time or the logistics may not favor going to an actual worship service in-person.”

Diaz said he, too, thinks people will attend in person if given a choice. What his congregation members said they missed most was hugging one another.

“Faith is very tangible,” Diaz said. “It’s displayed in the ways we love and care for one another, and even in the simple things of hugging, shaking hands, smiling to each other. ... If there’s anything we’ve learned through this process, it’s the people. The people is what matters.”