Before the faithful can return to church, leaders are planning

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Though the historic Church of the Cross in Old Town Bluffton has been closed to regular worship services, the sanctuary is open for individuals who wish to enter to pray. DEAN ROWLAND

Local religious leaders have kept their faith and their social distancing during the coronavirus shutdown.

Despite halting services at local places of worship, pastors, ministers, rabbis and priests still have been connecting with congregations by presenting their messages of hope, faith and strength via Facebook Live, Zoom, YouTube and other live streaming platforms. They've adapted to a new normal in a world of life-altering changes.

Most institutions are planning to reopen for public activities, albeit with a myriad of physical and social restrictions, at some point in the future after protocols have been established.

Some churches have allowed individuals to come into the church to pray for the past two months.

Saint Gregory the Great Catholic Church in Bluffton announced on its Facebook page that daily and weekend masses would resume May 11.

Currently, the Church of the Cross, with two campuses in Bluffton, has no schedule for reopening its chapels, said Father Charles Owens, adding that the bishop's Charleston office of the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina constantly monitors the situation and will weigh options before guidelines will be issued.

Even though technology has allowed Owens and his other pastors to stay in touch remotely with the church's flock, it's not the same thing as in-person contact.

"You're not able to gather," said Owens, who has pastored at the church for 24 years. "So much of fellowship and congregation is a sense of community and family, especially in the South. It has to do with being present with each other, smiling, laughing and talking, hugging and shaking hands. None of this has been there."

However, the situation could have been worse, had not the church built a facility before the pandemic struck that contains state-of-the-art equipment for streaming services.

"Praise God, we've been able to bridge the gap," he said.

Morning devotionals are delivered online, as are Wednesday night teachings, Friday worship services, and Sunday chapel services.

"We've been blessed too that there's a whole crowd of people out there that don't live anywhere around here that have joined our online worship services and teachings," he added. "We're administering to way more people than we had been."

"We're trying to figure out how to reopen but following social distancing guidelines," Rabbi Ken Kanter of Temple Oseh Shalom in Bluffton said. "We are looking forward to reopening when it is safe for our more than 500 congregants, sometime in the coming months."

For the past two months, he said services have been broadcast on Zoom, and that more than 100 households participated in its first Sabbath transmission on April 17. It also has conducted a virtual message and Passover seder, and posts funerals and memorial services online.

Various constituent organizations of the synagogue have been issuing a flurry of emails, phone calls and text messages to members.

"People are well connected," Kanter said. "Certainly, these are not the same as being together, but are illustrating the outreach of the Temple Oseh Shalom community. These are difficult days for all of us, clergy and laity, but we recognize the deep value of community, even if it cannot yet be in person."

"We will initiate a four phase recovery plan once Beaufort County lifts the State of Emergency, currently understood to be June 11," said pastor Pete Berntson of the Church of the Palms in Okatie. "Our plan will take four to six weeks to complete, which means full recovery may not occur until the end of July.

"Limited size worship will start in phase 2; outside groups and large gathering not until the end of phase 4," Bernston said. "Restarting properly will be orders of magnitude more complex than was shutting down."

Like other churches, Berntson's staff has been live streaming services and increased its social media presence.

Jim McGuffey, a Hampton Hall resident and safety and security consultant for many houses of worship worldwide, said, "Reopening houses of worship, as COVID-19 allows, will require leadership to rethink the future of worship and appropriate safety and security measures."

McGuffey assembled a to-do list for those planning to reopen.

Among the many tips are:

• Use social media to communicate steps you have already taken to ensure a safe reopening that must be followed upon return to services.

• Encourage high-risk members to continue to engage in on-line services.

• Set up touch-free hand sanitizer stations throughout your place of worship.

• Instead of handing out bulletins, consider leaving them in various locations with easy access.

• Have family members sit with their family.

• Set up collection plate stations for offerings and encourage online giving.

• Dismiss in an orderly fashion and by families to promote social distancing.

Lowcountry resident Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.

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