This holiday season the coronavirus pandemic is forcing some people of faith to celebrate in ways they may not have ever experienced before, as some houses of worship move their Christmas services online, outside or into their worshippers’ cars.
“People have had to kind of pivot and be more creative than ever before,” said Rev. Tamara Boynton, interim executive director of the Interfaith Alliance. “In some ways, they've been able to let go of some of those traditions because they've been taken from us and in their place, we and communities have been able to create new traditions.”
Many congregations have altered their services to emphasize the role of light and song, elements of joy in a dark season at the end of a difficult year, Boynton said.
Human luminaries are planned at Denver’s Messiah Community Church, part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Congregants will light candles along the sidewalk of Montview Boulevard on Christmas Eve. Hayden Congregational Church in Northwest Colorado has asked community members to come out on their porches to light a candle, sing Silent Night and listen to the church bells ring out on Thursday night.
“They'll take pictures and send those pictures in to the church so the church can make a montage,” Boynton said.
Highlands United Methodist Church isn’t planning its usual in-person service. Instead, the church will play music from its carillon while congregants gather outside near its big Christmas tree, holding candles. They’ll also have two different, pre-recorded worship services available online — one that’s more traditional and then a humorous puppet show meant for families and children.
With the insurmountable loss experienced in 2020, Boynton said houses of worship are not just concerned about how to host some form of a service. They’re also working extra hard to provide community aid like free meals, delivery services, gift-giving and a safe outdoor space for people experiencing homelessness to go.
“One of the ways that congregations and communities are acting differently or are sort of expanding their normal ways during this time (is in) helping and caring for community members,” she said.
At Centro Cristiano Vida Nueva in Edwards, Colorado, Pastor Josue Rubio plans to go directly to his 68 congregants, visiting door-to-door to pray with each family. He says the last five years the church would celebrate with a posada, including a play and refreshments, but they had to pivot this year.
“(We will) provide a quick prayer and small gift of cookies for every family,” he said. “We decided to show our love and visit them because I know it’s time to be together, time to be in a fellowship and right now we can’t. So it’s better to go and visit them and say to every family, ‘Hello, God bless you, we pray for you.’”
Rubio said several congregants have family members who died from COVID-19 in places like Mexico or Central and South Americaand weren’t able to travel and mourn with their loved ones. That’s part of the reason he wanted to do something special this year.
Though many congregations have planned alternative forms of worship, others still plan to celebrate the holiday as much like years past as possible. At First Presbyterian in downtown Colorado Springs, three in-person worship services are planned on Christmas Eve.
“What we’ve tried to do is let the person decide how they want to experience their Christmas Eve, as opposed to ‘let’s just respond out of a one-size-fits-all,’” said executive director Alison Murray. “Part of the reason we’re having in-person church is to allow folks who are grieving loss in lots of different ways because life just hasn’t been normal at all, that on that night, the most special night of our savior’s birth, that people can come to church and they can find a place to worship.”
Murray said the church expects about 1,000 people to attend the three services. They’ll be divided into six different rooms to allow families to socially distance. The services will also stream online, and people are invited to an outdoor candle lighting event with singing after each service.
The church has been holding in-person worship services since mid-August and has been following health guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Murray said. Attendees have to register for services in advance and get their temperature taken when they arrive. They’re also required to wear masks and practice social distancing.
Earlier this month, Colorado health officials changed the state’s guidelines to reduce the spread of COVID-19, allowing worship services to exceed the recommended capacity limits. Colorado’s original public health orders capped church attendance at 50 people or up to 25 percent of the building’s capacity. Under the new rule, religious institutions are still expected to “do their best” to follow health recommendations, though.
A handful of local churches have sued over capacity limits this year, arguing the rules infringe on their first amendment rights. A U.S. District Court judge ruled partially in favor of two churches. And the U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in, finding capacity limits for houses of worship in New York aren’t enforceable.
Adrian Miller, executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches, said most congregations the organization works with are sticking with what they’ve been doing the last eight months — virtual services. But he acknowledges it isn’t easy.
“I know there's been a lot of pressure from some segments of the faith community to move for more in-person gathering because they're looking at all these relaxation of rules for other segments of society and they're wondering, ‘Why can't we do it as people of faith?’” he said.
The council is made up of about a dozen mainly Christian denominations, said Miller. (Miller also sits on Colorado Public Radio’s board of directors.) Most of the faith leaders have asked their denominations to be cautious and mindful of COVID-19 guidelines, like mask-wearing and putting space between themselves and others.
“My kind of takeaway from this is it seems that the things that are part of church, that are integral to church, are more conducive to spreading COVID,” he said. “So we've been asking people to really be thoughtful about what they do.”
CPR’s Natalia Navarro contributed to this reporting.