Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Senior Pastor Willie Dwayne Francois III, 33, looked out at his congregation during a Sunday morning at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville and saw some worshipers who were old enough to be his parents or his grandparents.

Francois created a task force to formulate a plan for the return of believers to the sanctuary, but he has his own expectations because COVID-19 is particularly deadly for seniors, people with pre-existing medical conditions and those who fall into both categories.

“We are not rushing to open until I’m fully comfortable with the plan,” Francois said. “At least 30% of my members have underlying issues and (are of a certain) age.”

With the new coronavirus spreading nationwide and no vaccine in sight, Gov. Phil Murphy prohibited all social gatherings and issued stay-at-home orders March 21, so houses of worship for all different religions have not had the public within their walls since the start of spring.

This information is current as of May 20, 2020 and includes information from more than 70 communities served by Lee newspapers. Please check directly with the place of worship for any change in status or services prior to attending or tuning in.

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The two months that have passed since then have allowed religious institutions to prepare for a new normal when they reopen, which may include social distancing, personal protection equipment and hand sanitizer stations.

The one thing that is clear is that places of worship will have a different look going forward.

“We will not return to the way things were before March 15,” wrote the Rev. Dennis J. Sullivan, bishop of the Camden Diocese, in his column in last week’s Catholic Star Herald.

Since followers of the Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism have been unable to come inside Shirat Hayam in Ventnor, religious services have been held via videoconferencing, Rabbi Jonathan Kremer said.

A small group at the synagogue has been working on a reopening plan, addressing issues such as social distancing in the hallways, access to the bathrooms and use of water fountains and prayer books, Kremer said.

“It’s complicated,” Kremer said. “We will need ushers like never before.”

Since New Jersey has been on lockdown, Charles R. Lyles, co-pastor of Victory First Presbyterian Deliverance Church in Atlantic City, has been holding Sunday morning worship in his home with his wife, fellow co-Pastor Diana L. Lyles, and his daughter and granddaughter. The services can be seen on Facebook.

Victory First used a choir of as many as 18 people when worship was held inside the church, but this ritual will need to be changed when the building reopens, at least until a vaccine can be found for COVID-19.

The church also has a praise team, which can have as few as three members, Lyles said. The praise team members usually stand 6 feet apart from each other, so when the public can enter their church building again, the gospel music can be supplied by the praise team, Lyles said.

The pandemic has been a learning experience for Steve Rahter, pastor at the Christian nondenominational Praise Tabernacle in Egg Harbor Township.

Before COVID-19, Praise Tabernacle made its services available for viewing on its website at a later date. The church closing caused the church to start livestreaming, which it will continue once it reopens, Rahter said.

The pastor also discovered that even though the building was closed, members would continue to support the church financially with donations either online or in the mail.

Earlier this spring, the closing to the public of religious institutions impacted the Christian celebration of Easter and the Jewish commemoration of Passover. Shelter-in-place orders also lasted long enough to affect the Muslim observation of Ramadan, which ends Saturday.

“Ramadan is an incredibly holy month for Muslims. It is a time of heightened faith and religious gatherings. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we will remain in compliance with CDC guidelines and Gov. Murphy’s orders and will not hold Eid prayer in congregation this year,” said Haseeb Khan, president of the Muslim Community Organization of South Jersey.

Muhammad Ayub, an active member of Masjid Al-Taqwa in Atlantic City, said at least 4,000 people gathered together in recent years for Eid prayer.

Some in the faith community question whether the government gathering restrictions have been unconstitutional or violate religious freedom protection, but Sullivan wrote that the suspension of Masses is a matter of justice, as parishioners cannot endanger the lives of others or be the cause of their deaths.

“Let us commend to the mercy of the Lord those who died during this pandemic and those who mourn them. Let the sick return to good health. Let us pray that a vaccine will soon be available to protect us against the virus,” Sullivan wrote. “May all be safe during this pandemic.”

Contact: 609-272-7202

VJackson@pressofac.com

Twitter@ACPressJackson

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