COOS BAY — If the world is ending, that knowledge has not deterred Coos County congregations from practicing their beliefs.
For Pastor Trevor Hefner, of Family Life Center Church, it isn’t a rhetorical question. Hefner feels that the world is entering the end times as predicted in the Bible. He cited war, famine and, of course, disease, as signs that the apocalypse is here.
“We’re living in the last days. We’re living in the last moments,” he said.
Still, while Governor Kate Brown faces lawsuits from two Oregon churches over the orders that restrict large gatherings to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, Hefner’s church, along with others in the county, have more pressing work in front of them.
Coos County religious centers are focused on how to navigate the spiritual and bodily health of their congregations. For these churches, living through the pandemic is both a chance to grow spiritually and a challenge to long-held traditions in fellowship.
Back in March, as the state started to shut down, so did places of worship. The Bible Baptist Church in Coquille, North Bend's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the Family Life Center Church in North Bend are three examples of how religious groups have adjusted to the restrictions around the new coronavirus.
As restrictions lift and the churches begin welcoming back their congregations, they turn to the CDC to stay safe, to their Bible to remain resilient and to technology to stay connected when they cannot be together.
“The church is not a building,” Hefner said, “It’s us.”
A lawsuit was filed against Brown on Tuesday, May 26, asking for a stop to enforcement actions for an executive order which limits gatherings to 25 people or less. The filers of the lawsuit, Alliance Defending Freedom, claim the order unfairly singles out churches, which they say could accommodate larger groups while still following social distancing guidelines. The two churches in the lawsuit are located in Josephine and Douglas counties, respectively.
The leaders of the three Coos County churches that The World spoke to were all aware of the lawsuit against Brown, but had differing opinions on the action.
For Hefner, who believes the end times are here, asking churches to limit the numbers gathering in their congregations is a nuanced spiritual issue. On one hand, the church is required by their doctrine to respect the authority of governing bodies — to a point.
On the other, he says one day the Christian church will have to stand against their enemies, as described in Revelation. However, he does not think Gov. Brown qualifies as one of them yet.
“Governor Brown is not the enemy. She might make a decision we don’t like. She hasn’t told churches we can’t worship or to stop praying. She’s asked us to try to do it in a different way. She is an authority. I don’t think she has crossed the line of no return,” he said.
Further, he empathized with Brown, saying he felt the strain of choosing how to protect his own small congregation of 70 people. “She’s overseeing millions of people. It’s got to be stressful. Let’s pray she makes wise decisions,” Hefner said.
For Pastor Bruce Perkins of Bible Baptist Church in Coquille, it’s a question of whether Brown is overstepping her bounds. Because Coos County has fewer cases of the virus relative to other areas of the state, he said area churchgoers should have been trusted to gather safely.
“I’m for the freedom of assembly. I am also for churches being essential and that’s part of what the case is dealing with,” Perkins said. “People are able to take care of themselves and use their own wisdom.”
That said, Perkins is glad he lives in a rural community. “I’ve talked to pastor friends in other areas and it’s got to make us thankful that it hasn’t come here, not like other parts of the country and the world. I just praise the Lord for it.”
Bishop Birch Holt, who leads the North Bend Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, says he sees both sides of the issue: he empathizes with those who wish to reopen quickly, but says he understands what the governor is trying to accomplish.
Family Life Center Church
Hefner’s congregation will come together this Sunday for the first time since the shutdown. The church plans to maintain social distancing, limit attendance to 25 people, hold multiple services to accommodate the smaller crowds and provide an early service specifically for seniors and medically vulnerable.
“We want to be together, absolutely, but we want to be safe about it and wise about it,” Hefner said. He says the church is respecting governmental guidelines and has carefully prepared for the return of the congregation. The church has been professionally cleaned and sanitized, disposable face coverings and hand sanitizer will be provided and seating will be changed to encourage social distancing.
“This virus has been devastating. It’s deadly and we’re taking it seriously,” Hefner said.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The North Bend ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, like all local LDS wards, is not meeting in person these days. That hasn’t stopped the congregation from fulfilling their spiritual needs at home.
Holt hopes local wards might reopen to in-person meetings during Phase 2. Staying in compliance with the 100-person limit will be somewhat difficult for the LDS ward, which has some 150-200 regularly attending members. Holt says he will likely split the congregation in half and conduct meetings with each group every other week to comply with social distancing.
In the meantime, the LDS church is prepared to meet spiritual needs in other ways. For example, because many male members of the LDS church can act as priests, they are able to deliver the sacrament, a ritual similar to taking communion, to their own families at home.
Additionally, a year and half ago, the LDS church implemented a program called Come Follow Me, which encouraged families to hold meetings within their own homes, which eased the transition into lockdown.
Bible Baptist Church
Perkins, at Bible Baptist Church in Coquille, said his church made a few common-sense adjustments to serve its 35-40 congregants. Seniors and those who are most vulnerable to contracting the virus are staying home for now. Pews and high-touch areas are sanitized following services. Hand sanitizer is available.
When services end, congregants are asked to disperse and remember social distancing, when they would normally hug or shake hands.
The small congregation and limiting attendance by seniors has allowed the small church to remain in compliance. Perkins said the congregation was keeping morale up, but that they missed those members who have to stay away.
Finding ways to connect with each other is central to all three churches. Youtube videos show Perkins and his small group of congregants singing hymns to each other six feet apart. LDS member Melinda Silver described fellow congregants dropping off freshly-grown lettuce and Easter baskets on her porch.
Technology has been helpful in this regard. Bible Baptist posts videos of sermons on Youtube. At the LDS ward, Zoom is used for meetings and for classes. Family Life Center Church is using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Additionally, Holt, Hefner, Silver and Perkins all spoke of spending more time than normal on the phone, checking up on their fellow believers.
In a live Facebook video that aired Wednesday, Hefner can be seen alone in his church. “There’s no one in here with me but the Holy Spirit,” he said. While soft music played, congregants typed their prayer requests into the videos comment section and prayed together.
Being apart seems to have encouraged reflection in these Coos County churches. The worshipers spoke on how the pandemic gave them a chance to follow the tenets of their faiths and to relate to each other differently.
“We’re taught by the savior to love God and love our neighbors. A lot of things we’ve been asked to do are to protect ourselves and those around us,” Holt said, “That is an evidence of our love.”
Silver says, “I see a lot of people saying, ‘we’re not having church and that’s terrible,’ but I don’t feel the same way. This is a great opportunity to sit back and reflect on why God would want us to slow down and experience this event, as a person, a family and a church.”
Perkins has noticed that his congregation is more grateful and eager to go church.
“Spiritually," he said, "it’s made some changes. There were a lot of things we took for granted and now, because it’s more difficult, it puts more joy in the heart."