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Area churches pray for return of congregations

Many slowly bring back in-person worship services

Staff photo / Bob Coupland The choir of St. Patrick Parish in Hubbard leads the congregation in song and worship during a recent Mass at Hubbard High School. The church caught fire in mid-January, and services currently are being held in the church hall while repairs are being completed.

With a year of online services and sitting in vehicles in parking lots, area churches and parishes slowly have been bringing people back to in-person worship.

Church leaders have been reaching out to their members and reassuring Valley residents that with proper social-distancing guidelines in place, worship services can be attended safely.

Through email, phone calling, online announcements and word of mouth, churches are letting people know they are opening their doors to in-person worship once again.

The Rev. John Zuraw, chancellor for the Diocese of Youngstown, said many parishes have noticed it was not older congregation members — referred to by many as “wisdom figures” — who did not attend in-person during the pandemic, but many younger couples and families.

“The challenge we face is that there are some people who have become so comfortable sitting at home on their La-Z-Boy watching Mass on their television or computer that it’s now difficult to bring them back in person. It was so interesting when we realized that our older members never stopped attending, but the younger people were more often the ones who stopped,” Zuraw said.

He said office staff and church members have called families to tell them they are welcome back in person and to explain safety features such as roping off sections of pews for social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines.

Zuraw said St. Rose Parish in Girard, where he is pastor, has seen more and more people each week.

“With this taking place for a year, some people have become complacent and want to not have to get dressed up and come to church but stay at home and watch. Our goal is to get people back … We want them to receive the Eucharist in person,” Zuraw said.

But the online format has continued for the Diocese’s major events this past year, including the installation of Bishop David Bonnar.

“Mass is a very important part of people’s lives. If they can view a Mass live or on cable television, they can still have some comfort watching and being a part that way,” he said.

He said the Catholic Television Network of Youngstown and the Ecumenical Television Channel are broadcasting Masses.

“I think it is interesting that people are using a variety of different approaches to reach their congregations. We are all coming together in many unique ways to worship God,” Zuraw said.

REACHING OUT

Bonnar said one year ago, churches entered what was “a very dark place.”

“Who could have ever imagined that we would be temporarily displaced from in-person Masses, not to mention the fact that the Sunday Obligation would be lifted for the safety of all,” he said.

Throughout the pandemic, Valley churches have found creative and safe ways to reach their members.

Said Pastor Nate Dukes of Rust City Church in Niles, “The pandemic put things into perspective. It gave us a chance to see what we wanted to focus on and reach people and bring them back to worship.”

Many Rust City members are in their 20s and 30s and enjoy the interactive worship service at the church. They also volunteer at weekly food giveaways and other church programs.

While many remained faithful and watched services online, members have returned to worship and sing with other members. Dukes said nothing can replace members being in one place and the relationships that grow from that.

Pastor Matt Darrin of Howland United Methodist Church said the church started March 7 by bringing one half of the congregation back.

With a new addition to the building and getting members from the closed First United Methodist Church in Warren, Darrin said he is not worried about a decline in membership.

“There were people from other churches that were watching since their churches closed, but did not do online, so those church members began watching our worship services — which increased the number viewing for us,” he said.

Pastor Jim Simones of New Covenant Baptist Church in Lordstown said the church never shut down but stopped having Sunday school and Sunday evening service.

“We always kept Sunday morning worship and Wednesday evening Bible study going. We now have everything going now,” he said.

“A lot of churches closed, but I did not feel as a pastor I had the right to shut down the church … As long as anyone wants to come here we will keep the church doors open,” Simones said.

KEEPING PEOPLE SAFE

The Rev. Abby Auman, the Mahoning Valley District superintendent for the East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church, with 57 churches in the district, said: “No one expected to have to ask questions every month for a year like, ‘How many people of what age and health risks would be gathering in what size space with what kind of ventilation for what length of time with what degree of mask wearing and distancing?'”

The Rev. Shannon Trenton of Churchill United Methodist Church in Liberty, who became pastor of the church in July 2020, said while the church has been online since last November, the congregation returned to in-person services Easter Sunday.

The Rev. Michael Balash, director of worship at the Youngtown Catholic Diocese, said social distancing is maintained at all time in the churches.

“I think that the hope in the church is that people will come back and feel comfortable,” he said. “For those that haven’t yet returned, we’ve missed you, and we hope that you’ll be back.”

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