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Culpeper churches weigh reopening
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Culpeper churches weigh reopening

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The chapel of Culpeper’s Precious Blood Catholic Church is centered on God, with graceful vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows that direct your gaze heavenward.

“We love our church. It’s a sanctuary from the world,” Father Kevin Walsh, the church’s pastor, told the Star-Exponent in a recent interview.

Church members returned to worship in their lovely building on May 16 after having stayed away since early March. Under Phase 1 of Virginia’s reopening rules, churches must limit attendance to half of their pre-pandemic numbers, worshippers are urged to wear face coverings and stay at least 6 feet apart.

Precious Blood and the Islamic Center of Culpeper recently renewed some in-person worship, but most Culpeper County churches remain closed due to concerns about spreading the novel coronavirus among their members.

As churches across Virginia consider reopening after shutting their doors for two months, Culpeper’s religious leaders vary widely in their approaches to that step.

In most religious congregations, worship won’t be the way it was before.

Before, people greeted one another with hand-shakes, hugs, and kisses on cheeks. Whispering across pews in the chapel. Full-voiced, enthusiastic singing. And smiles and jokes to celebrate a shared spirit of love and faith.

Not so, now.

At Precious Blood, individuals and families sit socially distanced from one another, and wear face coverings. Hand sanitizer flows freely. Fear is in the air—fear of an invisible, unknowable enemy.

“Although we decided we could invite back up to 50 percent capacity, in reality we only got 25 percent,” Walsh said of the numbers of parishioners who have attended services since the church reopened May 16. “It certainly hasn’t been a problem, the distancing, since people mostly are not ready to come back yet.”

Walsh said he expects the church’s income will never completely recover from the pandemic.

“If you don’t come to church, you don’t give anything,” he said. Precious Blood’s monthly income has dropped by 75 percent.

“I think we’ll never get back to 100 percent,” Walsh said. “You keep hoping things will go back, but there are so many aspects of this, I think it will permanently change the culture of our society in a number of ways, and I think we’ll have to adapt.”

Across town at the Islamic Center, President Mohammad Nawabe said his congregation also recently began to hold public prayers again, temporarily meeting in a private home. But not all of its congregants meet together at one time, because of COVID-19, he said.

“We have about six people every Friday, they go to the old place, have prayer for about 20 minutes, and leave,” Nawabe said. “Then another family comes in, has prayer. We never have more than 10 people.”

The Muslim congregation has continued construction on their new mosque, and hopes to begin worshiping there in the next several months. On Saturday, cement was poured for the sidewalks of the new building on Old Rixeyville Road. Pavement for the parking lot still needs to be laid.

“The way we do everything has changed,” Nawabe said. Mostly, the center’s families are praying and performing religious rituals at home, although they look forward to the time when they can join together again.

“We still have to talk about how we will do the distancing, how to do prayers,” he said. “It may take till next year, or longer, to come back to normal. This came from God; it’s a wake-up call for us all.”

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At Beulah Baptist Church on Eggbornsville Road in Culpeper, Pastor Kenneth Pitts and First Lady Mavis Pitts said church members have no immediate plans to meet again in person.

“We don’t want to put anybody’s safety or health at risk,” Pastor Pitts said. “We’re serving a living God. He gave me power to make decisions that will help the congregation. We can’t rush back to having church simply because we want to congregate.”

Since early March, Pitts has held virtual services via Facebook Live, Zoom and other telephone and conferencing services.

“We started doing Bible study several years ago with some seniors who couldn’t make it to the church because of snowstorms and bad weather,” Pitts said. “So we had services at our home, and everyone could participate.”

That proved to be good practice for the COVID-19 pandemic. “We were a little more ahead of the game than some of my pastor friends,” the minister said.

Pitts talked of Beulah Baptist’s church building with affection, and anticipates with joy a time when he and his congregation can meet there again.

“When we get back together, we’ll have a formal presentation,” he said. “There at our megachurch at the top of the hill with a spectacular view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There is no better place in the world to relax and commune with God.”

Rose Lyn Jacob, the Jewish rabbi for five counties in Virginia’s northern Piedmont, including Culpeper, said she knows of no Jewish congregations in the region that have announced reopenings.

“At this point, most congregations are brainstorming and making contingency plans for online High Holiday services—Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year ... Yom Kippur and the Day of Atonement, which follows 10 days later,” Jacob said in an email.

She noted that Judaism is heavily interwoven with major life events—weddings, bar mitzvahs, birthdays, anniversaries and death.

“People were, at first, resigned to the world just stopping,” she said. “Now, they are looking for creative workarounds to suit their own situation.”

Jacob said death, in particular, is difficult now, separated as people are, preventing congregations from mourning or celebrating a life together.

“I suspect this will be something we carry in our hearts for years,” she said.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints closed all its church buildings in the region on March 12, Stake President John said via email. Although Mormon leaders haven’t announced a reopening date, he expects discussion of it to begin soon.

“I hope that this pandemic hasn’t permanently changed the trust that we have in other people,” said. “I hope that we don’t go forward viewing those around us as potential sources of infection, but instead can still see them as brothers and sisters, children of a loving God.”

Dan Carlton, pastor of Culpeper Baptist Church, holds similar hope.

“There is a great opportunity for partnership during and after this crisis,” Carlton said. “I think we are seeing some evidence of creative partnerships starting to form—partnerships among churches, nonprofits, businesses, education and health care. And if we can build on this, we will see a positive from this crisis.”

Looking at history can show people a path forward, he said.

“During the Civil War, our church did not meet for seven months,” Carltoe said. “When we began to meet again, we started with prayer groups, then moved to twice-a-month ‘preaching services,’ and then gradually resumed the regular church schedule.

“While this is a different time, we believe it is still relevant today.”

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