ST. PETERSBURG — Debbie Gregory stepped to the altar Sunday morning, leaning to rest on her cane, and received a communion wafer in her palm. She stepped to one side of the pastor, lifted her face mask, and placed it on her tongue.
By the time she got back to her pew in the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg, she was teary.
“It’s hard not to be able to give like you once gave, or be who you once were,” said Gregory, 66, of St. Petersburg. “For me, to just come, rest in the presence, say our prayers and then move forward ... I have no words. I didn’t expect these tears, but it was meant for me to come today.”
So it was for thousands of parishioners across Tampa Bay. For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic forced most houses of worship to cease normal operations, a few reopened their doors Sunday morning to celebrate Pentecost, a holiday commemorating the birth of the Christian church.
Services felt different, as do all things now. Congregations spread out across multiple Sunday services, ushered to specific pews and seats marked with signs and painter’s tape to enforce social distancing. Most churches required or encouraged face masks. Ushers didn’t pass bulletins or offering plates. People greeted one another with waves, not handshakes or hugs. Nurseries were closed.
Still, returning to any form of Sunday fellowship came as a balm to those for whom streaming sermons and weekday Masses weren’t enough.
“It’s important,” said Dean Staples, 89, a 30-year usher at St. Jude. “Right now, everyone, they want to get back. They miss it, even if they watched Mass online, which I’ve done. It wasn’t the same.”
The tenor at each service changed from church to church. At St. Jude, every one of the approximately 100 parishioners at the 8 a.m. Mass wore a face mask, which the Rev. Arthur Proulx called “the single most important thing we can do to prevent the spreading of disease.”
At Liberty Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, fewer than half of the 80-plus attendants at a 10:30 a.m. service wore masks the whole time.
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“I don’t know of anybody that has gotten sick in our congregation, praise the Lord," executive pastor Ralph Wilson told the amassed. “Let’s keep it that way.”
Meanwhile, masks were almost nonexistent at an outdoor service at the River of Tampa Bay, a Pentecostal church whose pastor, Rodney Howard-Browne, drew worldwide attention after being arrested for continuing to hold church services despite executive orders limiting public gatherings.
Thousands of attendees registered for the event online, agreeing to a liability waiver that would protect the church in the event they became infected with COVID-19. Tour buses brought in guests from outside Florida and even the country, Howard-Browne said. On the ground, the path into the River’s sprawling Tampa campus was lined with small posters quoting scriptures that encourage Christians to gather, hug, kiss and hold hands.
“Some may say you can’t do that,” Howard-Browne told the crowd. “You ain’t stopping me. The Bible tells me to do that, and I’m going to do what the Bible says.”
The River’s service, streamed online, had the tenor of a political rally, with Howard-Browne defiantly lambasting critics, the media and “the lies of the enemy" who sought, he said, to infringe on his church’s liberties.
“Somebody said, ‘Oh, it’s going to come back in the fall.' No, it’s not coming back in the fall,” he said of the coronavirus. "Somebody said, ‘There will be another plague.’ I’m sure there will be, but the River church will never shut again, ever. And I’ll tell you right now, we don’t run around with armed guards, but if I have to get a military here, I will. I’ll shoot my way into the church, and I’ll shoot my way out of the church. We ain’t shutting down. That happened once, but it will never happen again.”
At other churches, fear and rhetoric gave way to respectful precaution. At St. Jude, Rosalie Coyne, 81, came in a plastic face shield she bought in a pack of four for $4.99 at Sam’s Club.
“There’s people I haven’t seen in months and years,” she said. “The tendency is you want to come and give them a hug. You can’t do that now.”
At Liberty Baptist, where the faint scent of cleanser hung in the air between services, Fran McDermott, 83, scanned her pew with an ultraviolet disinfecting wand she’d ordered online.
“It’s much different when you can greet people and hug them and shake their hands,” she said. “But still, it is good to be back in for the live service.”
Peter Harris, 66, of St. Petersburg, had been hurting without it. Since the coronavirus hit, his wife, who suffers from a liver disease, lost her job. Returning to Liberty Baptist to sing and pray among friends was “very rejuvenating, very refreshing," he said.
When Liberty’s pastor asked those who needed healing words to come forward, Harris, who was not wearing a mask, walked down to the altar. A pastor in a mask kneeled beside him. They bowed their heads to one another. And they prayed.
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