Jim Seipel looked forward to hosting “Praise in the Park” Sunday mornings this summer.
The weekly religious music event began last year and attracted a number of residents with varying degrees of faith. Local religious leaders, including Seipel, the contemporary worship coordinator at Spirit Lutheran Church, 1310 Main St., aimed to expand it in 2020.
Those plans drastically changed because of COVID-19. “Praise in the Park,” like almost all other public events in recent months, has been delayed because of the pandemic. Spirit Lutheran had planned to partner with Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Trinity Lutheran Church and Immanuel Lutheran Church to host the festivities this year, but now it might be scrapped altogether.
Instead of bringing hundreds of people to Phoenix Park every week for Christian music and uplifting messages, the event won’t begin for at least a few weeks.
“We’re anxious for the day that we can continue,” Seipel said.
The most recent order from the Eau Claire City-County Health Department allows outdoor gatherings of up to 250 people as long as physical distance is kept. The order is in effect through July 8 and states that religious services are exempt from crowd size restrictions.
However, Spirit Lutheran Church Pastor Jim Ahlquist said the four churches do not yet feel comfortable hosting an event that would draw many people.
“We could have a crowd down there (that is) quite large and get away with that, but we want to be safe,” Ahlquist said. “We’re all about loving our neighbor the best way that we can, and right now we think it’s best not to gather (at Phoenix Park).”
Across the Chippewa River, Valleybrook Church recently started hosting private weekly worship services at the Owen Park Bandshell. Many health precautions are in place, although masks are optional, and between 100 and 125 people have gathered every Sunday in June to sing and practice their faith, according to Valleybrook Church Lead Pastor Travis Albrecht.
After sending out surveys to Valleybrook’s members asking for their input on several worship options, church leaders decided to make Sunday reservations from 10 to 11 a.m. at Owen Park from early June through Labor Day. The outdoor service is done in addition to a recorded service available online every week.
The church chose the location because coronavirus is less likely to be transmitted outdoors and Owen Park can easily accommodate physical distancing. Albrecht said Valleybrook keeps a list of attendees so COVID-19 contact tracing can occur if needed.
Signs are posted reminding people to keep six feet apart. There are hand sanitizer stations, and the service does not allow shaking hands or hugging. There is no communion, and no programs are given out. The church has song lyric sheets prepared several days before, and attendees can also find lyrics on their smartphone by using the church app.
Overall, Albrecht said attendees have followed health restrictions and appreciated gathering with one another after not going in-person to Valleybrook, a Converge church on 412 S. Barstow St., for nearly three months.
“People have loved it, because they’ve been able to be out in nature singing these songs to God our creator with no hindrance,” Albrecht said. “We couldn’t have predicted how people were so ready to see people again. They lingered and they talked a lot longer than they normally would have when we were just meeting every week. There was a deep hunger for connectedness.”
Valleybrook has historically held a service in Phoenix Park on Labor Day, so an outdoor venue wasn’t completely new. There are many more variables involved in having an outdoor service, but so far the weather has cooperated and everything appears to have gone well.
Most people sit apart on the benches in Owen Park, but Albrecht said others bring lawn chairs to sit particularly far away from everyone else, perhaps because they have underlying health conditions.
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, 1300 Mansfield St., in Chippewa Falls will try something similar next month. The church plans to begin hosting worship services at Irvine Park every Sunday through Labor Day beginning July 5. It will have services at 8 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. at the park’s main pavilion. There are benches, but congregants can also bring lawn chairs or blankets to spread out as much as they want.
According to Our Saviour’s Pastor Karen Behling, the choice was made to have two services to limit the number of people in the same place at once. The services will last about 45 minutes so the area can be cleaned and people rotated in and out.
Masks are optional but will be required if someone chooses to sing. Ushers will wear masks and write down people’s names for contact tracing. Ushers will also seat and dismiss people with physical spacing. There will be hand sanitizer stations. Communion will not be given out, and only one person will do the readings so the church microphone is not passed around. There will not be coffee or snacks afterward.
Behling looks forward to that first in-person gathering but knows she will likely have to remind people not to come into close contact.
“I think it will be hard for some people to resist that urge to hug one another and touch one another,” Behling said. “I’m expecting that I’m going to have to do a lot of gentle reminding.”
Behling said the social element of worship is important, especially for people who have limited access to technology to view virtual services.
“This was part of their weekly routine for their whole lives,” Behling said. “Not being with the gathered community on a regular basis has been hard for many … Where else do you come together with people and sing hymns? It’s the fellowship. It’s being together.”
Behling acknowledged that there are no guarantees that everything will go perfectly but believes the church has taken measures to make it as safe as possible.
“We recognize that a large number of our members would fall into the category of more vulnerable,” Behling said. “We really wanted to wait until we could feel like we had some more assurance that we could do this more safely … We know we’re going to be adapting and modifying as we learn along the way.”
Irvine Park will start hosting services in early July, but Seipel said “Praise in the Park” will begin in late July at the earliest.
Ahlquist said the churches want to welcome everyone to the music-filled event, so instead of excluding elderly people and individuals with underlying health conditions, they will wait until everyone can be included.
“We don’t want to be known as the church that spreads the disease around the community,” Ahlquist said.
Some people wanted “Praise in the Park” to begin this month, but after hours of conversations, church leaders chose to delay it.
“We decided that this was the best thing to do,” Ahlquist said. “People really want to get back together again. They’re getting restless … But I think they also are very good at doing what’s right.”
However, determining the right thing to do during a pandemic varies by church and will continue to present challenges for leaders going forward.