In rural Georgia COVID-19 hotspot, pastors cautious of resuming onsite worship

by Diana Chandler, posted Monday, April 27, 2020 (one month ago)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Baptist Press has corrected the spelling of Hans Wunch, Mallary Baptist Association director of missions.

ALBANY, Ga. (BP) -- Pastor Michael Catt would like to resume onsite congregational activities at Sherwood Baptist Church in the unlikely COVID-19 hotspot of rural Albany, Ga., but he's too concerned with the safety of his congregation and the community to take the risk.

A member of Sherwood Baptist Church is joined by hospital employees as the church joins other congregations in donating meals to Phoebe Putney Hospital in Dougherty County, a COVID-19 hotspot.
Photo by Garrett Grubbs
Even as the state of Georgia begins to reopen, Catt plans to practice caution and doesn't have a target date for returning, saying: "We can’t just throw the switch."

"Thirty-three percent of our volunteers with preschool [ministry] are senior adults, and we cannot endanger our senior adults, nor can we operate our childcare without them," Catt said Monday (April 27). "That's a big concern. We're looking across generations to say you can't do social distancing, and people are not going to want to bring their babies, and 1-and 2-year-olds, into an environment where they don't know if people have practiced social distancing or not.

“We're prayerfully cautious, and we are just asking the Lord for wisdom."

Albany comprises most of Dougherty County, Ga., where the 1.6 percent per capita COVID-19 infection rate -- according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center -- makes the county a COVID-19 hotspot. Of the county's 89,000 people, 1,470 have tested positive for the coronavirus and 108 have died. By contrast, the infection rate in Fulton County, home to populous Atlanta, is 0.15 percent, with 2545 cases and 94 deaths counted among 1.6 million people.

"We would love to open," Catt said, "but we're also, along with I think the majority of pastors in Albany, all looking at this as, we don't want to open and then get another flash [of COVID-19 cases] and then have to shut down again."

While waiting to resume onsite worship, Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., is sewing masks to donate to first responders and low income residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo by Rebekah Willard
Sherwood Baptist is famous as a pioneer in faith-based Christian films, partnering with Alex and Stephen Kendrick to produce box office hits "Courageous," "Fireproof," "Facing the Giants" and "Flywheel." The church averages 1,513 in Sunday worship attendance, according to the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Church Profile.

Catt and at least two other Southern Baptist pastors are among an ecumenical and racially diverse coalition of 36 Albany pastors stating their intent not to resume onsite worship until the COVID-19 infection rate makes it more feasible. Joining him on the pastors' brief video message are pastors Chad Ellis of Gillionville Baptist Church and William "Butch" Knight of First Baptist Church of Albany.

"While Gov. [Brian] Kemp will soon lift his order prohibiting congregations from meeting in church facilities, we believe it is in the best interest of our congregations and community that we not resume meeting at this time," the ecumenical group said on the video released April 23. "Although we aren't able to meet in our physical church locations, we will continue our worship services through mass media. We will continue to carefully evaluate the situation and can consider reopening at a later date. Finally, please practice social distancing and wear a mask if you decide to go outside of your home."

At First Baptist of Albany, with an average Sunday worship attendance of 370, Knight has seen "several" cases of COVID-19 in his congregation, but none have died nor required hospitalization.

"Our whole area, we're being very, very cautious in returning to normalcy. My staff, my team, we're evaluating strategies," Knight told BP. "We have not set a date for the near future [to resume onsite worship], but it could easily be sometime in June."

Sherwood Baptist Church Senior Pastor Michael Catt is among an ecumenical group of 36 pastors choosing not to resume onsite worship as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp reopens businesses.
Screen capture from YouTube
There are 25 Southern Baptist churches in Albany, Ga., and 50 congregations in the Mallary Baptist Association spanning Dougherty, Worth and Lee counties.

Hans Wunch, Mallary Baptist Association director of missions, said he doesn't know of a church in the association that plans to open before the end of May.

"We're partnering with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board to kind of give our pastors some ideas as far as reopening in stages, and talking through how that might look in different contexts," Wunch said. "We have some congregations, they have a lot of facility, not a whole lot of members, so they can socially distance. But other congregations, they don't have all the facilities that some of these other ones do."

Wunch said other considerations include when to resume children's ministry -- perhaps later, before city and county schools reopen -- as well as when and whether to restart choirs, which often include many members who might be more vulnerable because of age and health issues. Pastors are also considering how to apportion seating in sanctuaries to ensure spacing between family units.

"When you're singing, 6 feet may not be enough," Wunch said, "because you're projecting and water comes out of your mouth as you sing."

Wunch doesn't know of any COVID-19 deaths among churches in the association, but he said he can't be certain of whether any have occurred.

At Sherwood, Catt said a janitorial employee exhibited symptoms and was quarantined before other cases emerged. He doesn't anticipate the church resuming onsite worship before late May or early June, but the church is monitoring the pandemic in the community to make its decision.

In Georgia, Kemp has allowed many businesses to reopen, including gyms, beauty parlors and massage parlors.

"We don't want to set a date, because if there were a spike this week in Albany with these things opening, then it's going to push it out further," Catt said. "We are kind of at the mercy of people using common sense and doing what they've been asked to do: wash their hands, wear masks, practice social distancing. For a lot of the state, [reopening businesses] is probably not going to be a problem, but for Fulton County, Cobb County, Randolph County, Dougherty County; we're the hotspot in southwest Georgia.

“We can't just throw the switch."

In the meantime, Sherwood is diligently cleaning its facilities and is active ministering to the community. Catt said the church has partnered with nine other area churches for outreaches including providing meals, masks and hand sanitizer to first responders, low-income communities and senior adult homes. On Easter, the church fed all 1,000 employees working that Sunday at Phoebe Putney Hospital.

Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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