ENTERPRISE — Many places of worship in Wallowa County are rebounding from the shutdowns caused this past spring because of the coronavirus pandemic, and some are even finding their new circumstances a benefit.
Virtually all who were contacted are employing social distancing and the wearing of face masks when they meet.
An effort was made to reach out to all listed places of worship in the county. Some listed phone numbers that were not working and others didn’t respond to messages left.
Of those who were contacted, some are finding benefits in the new realities of gathering for worship amid the pandemic restrictions.
Pastor Tim Barton, of the Wallowa Assembly of God Church, said the pandemic led his church to go to extra lengths to reach his congregation. About 55 people regularly attend, and he doesn’t really know how many are reached by their online broadcasts.
“It really did put us in place where we had to adapt to reach people wherever they are in the world,” Barton said. “Anybody with an internet connection can see what’s happening at our services.”
He said no one associated with the church he is aware of has contracted COVID-19 and there’s been no noticeable drop-off in attendance.
“That’s largely because we’ve taken steps to make sure people are safe,” he said. “Of course, it does require a certain amount of personal responsibility, but that has proven effective.”
He said there also has been no noticeable drop-off in giving, allowing the church to remain financially viable. The church has even been able to purchase equipment needed to conduct services online.
“I do appreciate how all our people stuck with us. I think everybody appreciates we’re living in a different world,” Barton said. “We’ll adapt to whatever we have to do to preach the Gospel and spread the Good News.”
Some churches have expanded the number of services they hold. Pastor David Pendleton, of Summit Church in Enterprise, said they’ve added another Sunday morning service and spread out the seating in the Cloverleaf Hall, which the church rents for services. Children’s services and Sunday school, however, remain canceled.
“We thought some of our older folks would go ‘into hiding’ but we’re seeing a greater turnout from older folks than the younger families,” he said.
The church usually has a congregation of 130 to 150 attending each week, but they’re down 30-50% from normal. They’ve also lacked the usual influx of visitors during tourist season.
He said from what he’s heard, that’s consistent throughout the area.
“I think the current state of unprecedented times allowed people to agree on the frailty of the human condition and things they formerly held to be true … in a variety of areas,” Pendleton said. “It’s called us to come to terms with the fact that nothing is constant except for the Lord.”
Father Thomas Puduppulliparamban, parish priest for St. Katherine Catholic Church in Enterprise and Wallowa, said in the spring Mass had been shut down by order of the pope and confessions could be conducted by appointment only.
Now, however, he said he’s able to conduct Mass for the approximately 50 parishioners, as long as they’re wearing face masks.
Some churches have cut back the number of services they hold and are relying more on online worship.
Pastor Terry Tollefson, of Christ Covenant Church in Lostine, said the church is now down to one 10 a.m. service from its usual four to maintain social distancing.
The majority of the congregation of about 150 attends virtually, which Tollefson said is a growing number.
“It’s pretty odd that they’re growing,” Tollefson said. “These are interesting times.”
The church does continue its Youth Bible Fellowship, he said. In the past, the approximately 25 kids would go to sing at area senior centers.
“But the older folks can’t even have visitors now,” he said. “So, they go window to window and sing outside their windows.”
Pastor David Bruce, of Enterprise Christian Church, said the way he looks at it is they now have four different congregations: One group comes into the church as normal but wears face masks, another group listens on the radio, another group participates via Facebook and there’s another group that either participates by radio and/or Facebook from the church parking lot or picnic tables outside.
Bruce said the church can accommodate 80-85 people in the sanctuary, but it hasn’t reached that many yet. The picnic tables have proven popular, although as the weather chills, that may end and people could move just inside to the church’s fellowship hall.
“They kind of like the picnic atmosphere at the end of the building,” he said.
As for any return to normal worship, Bruce said, “I think we will be doing this through next spring is my guess.”
Enterprise Christian now holds just a 9 a.m. service, having canceled its 11 a.m. service. Services for the church’s youth group have been going since September and they plan to add adult and children’s Sunday school services Sunday, Nov. 1.
Joseph United Methodist Church suspended meeting in person at The Place in March, and continues that suspension, according to a press release. The church does continue online and at its Facebook page or by calling Pastor Cherie Dearth at 541-432-3102.
“We are living the truth that the church is not a building but people trying to spread God’s love in the world,” Dearth said. “God is showing us new ways to be the church.”
Christian worship isn’t the only type affected in the county.
At the Wallowa Buddhist Temple, located above the Hurricane Creek Grange near Joseph, monks Rev. Meido Tuttle and Rev. Clairissa Beattie have difficulty getting a good internet connection from their location but still strive to minister to area Buddhists.
“We send out a weekly schedule and dharma talk — it’s like a sermon — by email” to about 80 people, Tuttle said.
She said that since Buddhism doesn’t proselytize, only those who specifically ask for the dharma talk receive it.
While most in-person contact is limited, they do get together by appointment.
“A lot of people who draw on us do so individually,” she said. “We are still offering what we can. But we do miss it and looking forward to having people stopping by.”