On Sunday, Nov. 7, Pastor Patty Nance and two young children in suits began a Sunday morning service by walking up to the front of their church and lighting candles. They were all wearing masks, trying to reduce the chance of COVID-19 transmission, and they were not alone in their mask-wearing.
Every single person in Hermiston First United Methodist Church, 191 E. Gladys Ave., Hermiston, was wearing a mask. During the entire service, the only time anyone removed a mask was when speaking at the front of the church, behind a lectern or at the altar.
This comes at a time mask-wearing has become politicized, and some television evangelists have decried both masks and vaccinations. First United, however, has sided with precautions, according to the pastor. For not only was everyone masked, but the church had other signs of the seriousness by which they are taking COVID-19.
A few such signs, just outside the sanctuary, were actual signs — one that posted recommendations for social distancing, masks and hand-washing. Another sign included a checklist of COVID-19 symptoms.
First United had hand-sanitizing stations at entrances and a sign-in book asking people to admit their vaccination status.
As the service fell on the first Sunday following All Saint’s Day, Nov. 1, the church celebrated heroes of Christianity, both past and present. Nance recommended keeping them, and their ways of showing that they were “marked by the fruit of the spirit,” in mind.
Guest speakers, Joy Matthews and Jackie Linton, took the pulpit to remind the congregation of suffering individuals. Their examples show us the need for God’s forgiveness and justice, as people “seek the face of God,” they said.
Meanwhile, the congregation remained masked, and members did not take their masks off when singing their only song of the service, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” They went outside to sing that song at the end of the service.
They also took communion outside. Bread, signifying the body of Christ, was served with a gloved hand and tongs. The juice, which represented Jesus’ blood, was delivered in tiny, individual plastic cups.
It was not the most comfortable of situations, admitted Bob Daniel of Hermiston. He was at the Sunday service. He said he has been a member of the church for more than 40 years, and he was “not crazy about masks.” Still, he said he wore one for every service because he thought it was the right thing to do.
Another member, Janie Early, Irrigon, was at the service. She wore the mask at church and wherever she goes these days, she said. With her family at church that Sunday, she said the masks were uncomfortable, but she wore them out of love for her fellow man. She expressed the belief that masks reduce transmission and wearing them protects her community.
This beliefs of love and protection were shared by the pastor. In an interview the day before the service, Nance said masks help. Also, believers should love their neighbor, and do what they can to promote people’s health and happiness, she said.
“I am so proud of them,” Nance said of her congregation.
They closed at a point last year, she said, but members came together and agreed on a set of rules that included wearing masks, and they kept to those rules.
Around 35 people attended the service, a typical number, Nance said, and they all keep true to the mask rule. She said she believes these rules have helped reduce the chance that one of them would get sick and die of COVID-19.
“I, personally, can’t name one person in my congregation whose funeral I’d like to conduct because they died from COVID,” she said. “And I’ve seen that, not in my congregation, but other places.”
She pointed to some other churches, which suffered deaths and illnesses, from COVID-19.
Her decisions to close the church for a time and to install safeguards have received some criticism from outside her congregation, however. She spoke of one example, where one person called her and challenged her on her lack of faith. The caller, Nance said, asked her how she can profess to trust God while also taking precautions against disease.
“I think it was the most dumbfounding thing anyone had said to me in years,” Nance said. She said she believes “God made really smart scientists, and we’re going to follow the science.”
It is insulting to be told that one’s faith is a lie, she said. She insisted that she trusts and loves God.
“I have crazy faith,” Nance said.
She said she could not remember a time when she did not believe, and throughout her life, through the many ups and downs, her belief in God sustained her. In “horrendous times,” as when her husband died, her belief comforted her, she said.
“My faith is simple,” she said. “Love your neighbor. Do what you can to protect them. How is that a big deal?”
She became a pastor because she had faith in God, she said.
This does not mean, however, that bad things do not happen. She had a second congregation at a Pendleton church that disbanded during the pandemic, despite their faith — just one example of a disappointing thing happening to faithful people, she said. She also brought up homelessness, poverty and disease happening among believers.
During difficult times, a faithful person does whatever possible to protect others, she said; this includes wearing the masks and taking other precautions.
She said she has a person who cannot vaccinate because of health reasons. This person, though, takes other precautions.
Looking forward to her service in which First United celebrated All Saints’ Day, she said she was keeping in mind great heroes. People such as John Wesley, Methodist founder, and Martin Luther King, Jr., would have masked.
“Jesus would have masked,” Nance said.
She added that Jesus, who is the “ultimate healer,” taught loving God and loving neighbors.
It is possible to cover our faces even as we seek the face of God, she said.