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Will COVID-19 be the Grinch that stole Christmas?

The Rev. Joseph Alsay irons a dossal, a type of cloth handing, that will hang during Advent at St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, where he is rector. The church has suspended in-person worship services and will offer virtual services only through mid-February. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]
The Rev. Joseph Alsay irons a dossal, a type of cloth handing, that will hang during Advent at St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, where he is rector. The church has suspended in-person worship services and will offer virtual services only through mid-February. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]

I'm dreaming of a virtual Christmas ...

Said nobody, ever.

With the COVID-19 health crisis ramping up in March, most churches in the metro area did something they never thought they'd ever do when they closed their doors and offered only virtual worship services on Easter Sunday.

Going online-only for the most holy day on the Christian calendar stung a bit but clergy hoped that in-person attendance would resume in the days afterward.

Many in-person activities and worship services did resume around May.

However, the current surge in COVID-19 cases may affect another important date for Christians — Christmas, the day they celebrate Jesus' birth.

Worship services and activities related to the holiday are some of the most anticipated and well attended of the year.

Have pastors and preachers looked far enough ahead to the possibility of a virtual-only Christmas?

For several clergy like the Rev. Rockford Johnson and the Rev. Joseph Alsay, the answer is yes.

But though the coronavirus would alter some in-person worship activities — like Dr. Suess' story of the fictional Grinch — it wouldn't stop Christmas, Johnson said.

In a Nov. 22 online message to his congregation at Norman's McFarlin Memorial United Methodist Church, Johnson said the church, 419 S University Blvd., would be switching to online-only worship services through Jan. 17 but he said "nothing — absolutely nothing — will stop God’s people from Preparing the Way for the celebration of the Christ Child."

"Many of us will remember from that Christmas classic, 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas,' that even though all the packages, decorations, and food were stolen, Christmas came, nevertheless," Johnson wrote.

"How much more are we certain that, even during the disappointment of prolonged social distancing, nothing can separate us from experiencing the strong love of God that is the very heart of Christmas!"

Johnson, McFarlin's senior pastor, said church leaders were making the changes out of concern about rising COVID-19 case numbers. He said the church's relaunch team had heard from their medical experts that local health care providers and medical facilities were being seriously overloaded.

Johnson said he knew some church members would be disappointed by the suspension of in-person worship and other traditional seasonal activities, but the church staff was already working on some alternative ways to celebrate the season. Some of these possibilities included an Advent Festival with drive-by and drive-components.

'Big' changes

Alsay, rector of St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, said the church held virtual-only services from March to September and the church's reopening committee recently decided to close again on Nov. 21 through the Epiphany season, which ends on Feb. 14, 2021, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

He said that means church members won't experience all of the traditional services and activities like the children's Christmas pageant and a Happy Birthday Jesus Party held afterward, candlelight Christmas Eve services, and singing Christmas hymns and other songs together. The church, 14700 N May, typically expects lots of visitors to show up, too, and that won't be an option this year.

"This is big," Alsay said.

"There's nothing like seeing all those candles. And our organist said there's nothing like full-throated singing like at Christmas. We pull out all the stops, no pun intended."

The priest said earlier this year, he was warned by a medical professional on the church's reopening committee that he should be prepared for the possibility of Easter 2021 on April 4 being similar to Easter 2020. She told him many people will not have been vaccinated by then and there may still be plenty of concern about spreading the virus.

"I thought 'Wow!" Alsay said.

The changes are being made to ensure everyone's safety as COVID-19 cases soar and that is important to remember at Christmas, a time when Christians mark the birth of their Savior.

"What's the meaning of Christmas and how do we love our brother and sister? We try to keep them safe and maybe we'll understand something about God taking on human flesh and becoming vulnerable," Alsay said. "We'll know something about vulnerability this year."

Holiday modifications

Several religious leaders said they plan to host in-person Christmas services but they have some modifications to make them safer for church members. They will offer additional Christmas services to accommodate the expected increase in attendance due to the holiday.

The Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, said he considered the idea of suspending in-person Mass but ruled it out.

"For Catholics, Sunday Mass is very important and Christmas is even, in a certain sense, more important in the minds of many Catholics. Christmas is a day that is spent not only with family but it is a day that is spent with the Lord and participating in Mass on Christmas is very important to us," he said.

"So even though many people may have been staying away from Mass or participating virtually in Sunday Masses, we anticipate that many people will want to come to Christmas Masses in person."

Coakley said doesn't necessarily expect extremely large crowds but he has asked archdiocese priests to schedule additional Christmas services so that more people may attend and there will be more room for them to spread out for social distancing.

He said pews have been roped off to encourage social distancing, sanitizing stations have been set up and masks are required at all in-person Masses. The archbishop issued the mask mandate in July, becoming one of the first of the metro area's denominational spiritual leaders to do so.

Like Coakley, the Rev. Bill Hulse and the Rev. Mark Muenchow said their churches will also offer more services for the larger crowds expected.

Muncheow, senior pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church, 3600 Northwest Expressway, said his church will add an additional Christmas Eve service to the two already planned and a Christmas Day service will be held as well. To accommodate for social distancing, people will be asked to register in advance for the holiday services.

"Christmas Eve is actually our most attended service, even more than Easter," Muncheow said. "It's a family tradition, a family service and we have the candlelight service."

Hulse, senior pastor at Putnam City Baptist, 11401 N Rockwell, said his congregation is moving forward with its plans for Christmas because the church has put ver stringent guidelines in place to combat COVID-19. He said the church will add a third Christmas Eve service and will live stream services as well.

"We spread our people out as far as we could," he said.

Plans are fluid

The Rev. Trey Witzel, associate pastor at First United Methodist Church of Edmond, said his church, 305 E Hurd, had not canceled in-person Christmas services but church leaders, including the Rev. Sam Powers, senior pastor, have been talking about possible alternatives to the traditional activities. He said church staff is aware of the COVID-19 case surge and they have been talking about what changes might need to occur to limit the spread of the virus.

"We're not going to make any final calls until the first of December but we are looking at what a non-sanctuary Christmas Eve service might look like," he said.

Witzel said the church will definitely have an online Christmas Eve component but they are also considering an outdoor event of some kind.

Plans are also fluid at Trinity Lutheran Church, where the Rev. Roger Bruns is senior pastor.

Bruns said the church, 5701 S May, suspended in-person worship services from mid-March through June 16 and made the transition to online services. When they did reopen, they moved services from the sanctuary into the fellowship hall where fold-up chairs make it easier to set up for social distancing.

The pastor said the church's parish council recently voted to suspend in-person worship on Nov. 29, with plans to reopen on Dec. 6. He said the group made the decision based on Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt's Nov. 19 plea that residents not participate in higher-risk activities like large indoor gathering for 10 days to help combat the current public health crisis.

Bruns said the church is planning to host in-person Christmas Eve services, marking the first time church members will gather in their sanctuary since the spring.

However, he said the church has increased the number of services from two to three and the times are spaced out so that staff will have an hour to clean and disinfect in between. People will be required to wear masks, social distancing guidelines will be followed and members will be required to RSVP to reserve seating.

"There's a lot of excitement," Bruns said regarding Christmas services.

"We light the light of Christ on the Christ candle and of course, sing lots of Christmas carols."

The pastor said church members want to see the Christmas tree in the sanctuary instead of the fellowship hall so it will be on display. And they hope to have more choir members than the six who sing now —all wearing masks and social distancing.

Bruns said the parish council won't hesitate to cancel these holiday plans should the COVID-19 cases continue to spike. He said the council group would wait to vote on the issue closer to Christmas if need be.

"If we approach Christmas and it appears that is the best advice, we are willing to agree with that and not have worship on Christmas. We have great respect for science. We think God works through the scientists," he said.

Bruns said altering church plans in the interest of public health is in keeping with Jesus' teachings.

"That was the major lesson of Jesus, I think. You have to have personal responsibility, first of all for yourself, that you do as Jesus says. And then personal responsibility to minister to others," he said.

"And part of that responsibility, I believe, is helping others have a safe, comfortable and healthy environment."

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Carla Hinton

Carla Hinton, an Oklahoma City native, joined The Oklahoman in 1986 as a National Society of Newspaper Editors minority intern. She began reporting full-time for The Oklahoman two years later and has served as a beat writer covering a wide... Read more ›

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