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Clergy are walking a delicate line between safeguarding congregants against COVID-19 while keeping them connected to their faith.

North Charleston Apostolic Church temporarily shut down after 30 worshipers tested positive. Similar outbreaks hit churches spanning the state, from Greenbrier County to Marion County. Gov. Jim Justice last week cited outbreaks at churches in Raleigh, Boone, Taylor and Kanawha counties. Community-spread outbreaks across West Virginia are on the rise, according to state data.

COVID’s spread prompted the Rev. Matt Santen and leaders at River Ridge Church in Charleston to get creative. Four months after halting services in favor of virtual sermons posted on Facebook and YouTube, River Ridge held a drive-in church, allowing congregants to park their cars in the church lot, take out lawn chairs and take in Santen’s sermons in-person.

“It was exciting to see faces for the first time in so long, but it’s kind of frustrating, too,” Santen said. “People are right there, and you get that awkward little elbow bump or whatever, but you do want to hug them and you can’t.”

Risks persist. People attending the outdoor services provide names and contact information so people can be reached in the event someone among them tests positive.

“If something happens here like what happened at [North Charleston Apostolic] we know we don’t have a corner on the market of avoiding COVID-19, we aren’t immune to it,” Santen said. “We’re outside, but we’re following measures past that, too. If people come in to use the bathroom, we’re only allowing two at a time in the building. We’re still wiping things down and sanitizing more. We’re being careful for the sake of those who are coming.”

River Ridge has set up a service line for church members. Church leaders make regular calls and emails to members.

“Whether a church meets in person or online or outside, the call of the church doesn’t change. A church doesn’t exist or not exist because they’re meeting or not meeting,” Santen said. “A church is there to bring people closer to God. A Sunday morning service can help do that, but it’s not necessary. We can connect with God in a number of ways, and we’re finding that out now.”

The First Church of the Nazarene on Charleston’s West Side and Elk River Nazarene in Mink Shoals resumed church services June 7 after stopping them March 15. But life at the church differs from the norm.

“We had Sunday school, morning and evening sermons, Wednesday activities, and other things regularly scheduled throughout the week,” said the Rev. Randy Ledsome, who leads both churches. “We can’t do a lot of that now — our priority is keeping our members safe — but we are doing what we can.”

Worshipers wear masks and maintain proper distances between each other. Singing at services — integral at Elk River — is reduced.

“No matter what happens, we want our people to be safe, so we’re going to air on the side of caution if there is an instance where we find an incidence of COVID-19,” Ledsome said.

But there are difficulties, Ledsome said. People rely on churches and faith groups not just for the connection to God but for support.

Congregations at both of Ledsome’s churches are older. Some worshipers have not returned to services. That includes members living in nursing homes who relied on Sunday services to connect with relatives and friends.

“We communicate as often as we can, and the old telephone still works — to hear the voice of someone else, I think that makes a difference,” Ledsome said. “We have congregants, though, in nursing homes and this ordeal has really been to their detriment. I’ve watched some of them deteriorate from lack of physical contact. That physical touch and voice is lacking, and I think it surely has a mental effect, but it’s affecting us physically as well.”

Ledsome and Santen said the Scriptures provide reminders that difficult times have existed throughout history.

“We take those lessons from the Scripture,” Santen said, “and use them to remind [congregants] that God is still looking out for them, still here and he’s led other people through hardships like he will lead us.”

Reach Caity Coyne at caity.coyne@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-7939 or follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.

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