Father Peter Tobias gives a blessing for the improvement of the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church on Monday, July 20, 2020, in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Parishioners largely welcomed back to in-person church services

One serious point of contention during the coronavirus pandemic, amid many, has been the fate of in-person church services. Some have been adamant about discontinuing worship services altogether with the fear they could become superspreading events, while others have fiercely opposed — claiming they need church now more than ever.

Statewide and on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaskans watched as their restaurants, businesses, government agencies, schools and churches closed their doors to the public during the beginning of the pandemic.

Now, as COVID-19 mitigation measures and restrictions have eased, Alaskans have been watching their communities reopen.

There is still COVID concern from some, though. Thursday, Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink said the state and country are in the midst of a fourth wave of the pandemic.

For the most part, on the central peninsula, people are going about their mostly normal lives. Almost everything is open again, including churches.

April Hall, the pastor of both the Kenai United Methodist Church and North Star United Methodist Church in Nikiski, said services in both parishes are offered both in person and on Facebook.

This is relatively common on the central peninsula.

Rector Peter Tobias with Holy Assumption Orthodox Christian Church, Pastor Tom Boehm with First Baptist Church of Kenai, Minister Shane Blevins with the Nikiski Church of Christ, and Ministry Assistant Patti Gaede at Soldotna Bible Chapel all said they offer both in-person and online services to their parishioners.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses of Alaska, who usually meet at the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage once a year, had to gather in a virtual format for the second year in a row, according to a press release from the organization.

They have broken up the traditional three-day convention into six weekend installments via Zoom, which are streamed through their website.

The release stated that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been meeting for conventions since 1897, but through the pandemic decided to switch course and launch a global virtual event in multiple countries and over 500 languages.

But the smaller-scale church services on the central peninsula are mostly meeting in person.

“People are loving coming back to church,” Gaede with Soldotna Bible Chapel said. Most parishes aren’t requiring masks at this point in the pandemic, either.

Pastor Hall with Kenai and North Star United Methodist said unvaccinated parishioners are asked to wear facial coverings, but otherwise it’s up to the individual.

At Holy Assumption, First Baptist, the Nikiski Church of Christ and Soldotna Bible Chapel, masks are optional.

Although church officials said most everyone seems excited to be worshiping in person again, some parishioners are still wary about gathering during this wave of the pandemic.

“We’ve still got some folks that are out,” Pastor Boehm with First Baptist said. “In general people are happy to be back.”

Boehm said multiple if not a majority of the parishioners at First Baptist are vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Minister Blevins at the Nikiski Church of Christ said he wasn’t at his position there before the pandemic hit, but that he knows the parishioner numbers aren’t what they were before the virus emerged in Alaska.

Similarly, many parishes in the area continue to upload videos of church services for people who elect to tune in remotely.

“We’re continuing to stream for people who might feel more comfortable (staying home),” said Rector Tobias with Holy Assumption Orthodox. His parish broadcasts not only via Facebook but also on YouTube.

The church officials all said they followed national and state COVID-19 mitigation guidance during the earlier parts of the pandemic, even when the guidance advised them to discontinue in-person services.

“We did our best to totally follow the guidelines set by the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the state,” Gaede with Soldotna Bible Chapel said.

Additionally, some parishes received pandemic guidance from the church hierarchy.

Minister Blevins in Nikiski said that although people are coming back to church and they’re generally excited to be doing so, he wanted to emphasize that it’s better to miss a few Sundays than get other people in the congregation sick.

“If you’re sick, by all means, please stay home,” he said. Because when it comes to going to church, “we all need it.”

Reach reporter Camille Botello at camille.botello@peninsulaclarion.com.

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