Bells were ringing in communities across Las Vegas throughout the weekend as in-person religious services at many churches commenced for the first time in months.
Prompted by Gov. Steve Sisolak’s raising of allowable public gatherings from 50 to 250, several area houses of worship began returning to live services over the weekend, while others that have been offering services under the previous 50-person maximum are preparing to inch closer to pre-COVID attendance.
Though Saturday night had a small turnout at a few Henderson churches, those who came were excited to put on their church shoes again and celebrate among friends with only a few restrictions.
St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church asked parishioners to register online beforehand, and RSVPs were signed in upon arriving. Only a few dozen cars were scattered across the gaping parking lot for Saturday evening’s Mass, but those outside marveled at the completed school next door, which began enrolling students during the pandemic.
Up the street at New Song Church in Anthem, old friends reunited in admiration of how beautiful their holy home looked.
About a dozen people gathered in the parish hall to listen to Pastor Paul Block speak in person for the first time since July, when the church briefly opened with a 25-person limit.
‘It’s my family’
Sun City Anthem resident Connie Lerner, 78, parked in front of the church and helped her friend Dottie Roser, 75, with her walker as the two entered church. The women admired the way the seats had been organized, with two seats in each row of six blocked off for distancing. Roser spent the time before church making her way around to say hello to people while Lerner sat in on Block’s Bible study.
“This is a special place for me,” Lerner said between Bible study and 5 p.m. service. “It’s my family.”
Lerner remembered last October, before the pandemic and before she was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, when 26 church members traveled to see the holy lands in Europe and Asia. She said she still prefers Saturday night services because it’s an older crowd and they all go to dinner together afterward.
Margaret Grunseich, 69, and fiance Tom Willmore, 77, said the offering box being at the back of the building and the separate entrances and exits help everyone feel safer.
“We can bring in more people this way and still be conscious of our health,” Grunseich said.
Roser, Willmore’s sister, called being back in the church “an absolute blessing.”
“I get to praise the Lord in a sanctuary among the fellow worshippers,” she said, relieved to be done with drive-thru communion.
‘So good to be together’
Appropriately, the Rev. Drew Moore’s sermon at Canyon Ridge Christian Church on Saturday touched on the theme of “impactful gatherings.”
The church had been offering only online and streamed services since March, and live services resumed this weekend with a full capacity — 250 persons registered to attend two services Saturday and two services Sunday.
“It’s so good to be together,” Moore, the church’s lead pastor, said in welcome, nailing perfectly the general vibe.
Seats were disinfected between the slightly shorter services, and all attending were required to wear face masks. Executive Pastor Mitch Harrison said congregants had no problem following the church’s new safety protocols.
“It seemed to work pretty smoothly,” he said. “We’ve been really conscientious about helping people understand the reasons to wear the mask.
“People are cooperative and happy to be here, so I think that helps the process through.”
“It’s good to see a lot of familiar faces and some new faces, too,” Harrison said. “Some people are just ready to get back in church, ready to gather again.”
Mike Wagoner, a member of the church for about 15 years, said returning was “almost like coming home. I get to see my friends again.”
He also has found that, compared to a live-streamed or video service, attending a live service helps him to concentrate.
“I have less distraction here,” Wagoner said. “Your whole mind is set on coming to see God.”
As with many area churches, Holy Spirit Catholic Church asked parishioners to register online, and all 250 seats had been reserved for the 9:30 a.m. Mass, the Rev. William Kenny said. With mask wearing and hand sanitizing, social distancing measures included having parishioners sit on the ends of the pews and using only every other pew.
Communion was limited to wafers. Wine from chalices was not given out.
The church has been celebrating Mass since June, limiting the number of people inside to 50, Kenny said.
“There’s a real hunger for the Eucharist. We’ve had hundreds watch it live, but they can’t take communion,” he said, adding many probably also miss the fellowship and socialization that Mass provides.
Kenny said he is confident that church attendance will bounce back when the pandemic is over. He saod he had heard of some folks finding time to read the Bible during the pandemic and others realizing they needed to work on their relationship with God.
“Maybe that’s the silver lining – some people realized how important God is,” he said.
John and Elizabeth Reyes said they have been limiting going to Mass to once a month to ensure others get the chance to go.
While the number of parishioners had increased, Elizabeth Reyes said she missed the robust and collective singing of everyone — the church usually holds 1,700 people.
“We always think there should be more people,” John Reyes said. “They did a good job. Everyone is spread out and they made sure everyone is wearing a mask.”
Over at Desert Spring United Methodist Church, an outdoor service was held for a maximum of about 60 people, the Rev. David Devereaux said.
Chairs were placed outside in clusters based on the number of registered people in each party. Each group was placed 6 feet apart. Everyone wore masks and hand sanitizer was available.
“For seven months this I’ve preached to a camera,” Devereaux said. “I missed being able to see people and the fellowship.”