Dear neighbors and friends in Chapel Hill faith communities,
Our houses of worship have sought to walk together through the Covid-19 pandemic. Since March of last year, senior clergy leaders representing nearly two dozen congregations throughout the Chapel Hill area have met weekly to receive public health updates and discern how best to counsel our congregations. As we celebrate the high rates of vaccination that make more activities possible in the summer months, we want to offer an update on how we feel our communities may gather for worship and fellowship.
Our guiding image now is a dial rather than a light switch. We do not anticipate that in-person worship services will return to full-strength instantaneously. Rather we expect the summer will be a time for cautious and incremental steps toward more communal activity. All of this will take deliberate planning and assessment as we monitor public health conditions and reflect on the needs of different communities.
March and April of this year have been the most difficult months for those of us tasked with making decisions about how and when to call our communities together. Before vaccines were available, there was a clear consensus that gathering of any sort was inadvisable. Now that 35% of Americans and 33% of North Carolinians are vaccinated, we are often asked to interpret conflicting advice and contemplate the needs of communities with different levels of privilege and exposure. In Orange County, the vaccination numbers are particularly impressive. The vaccination rate locally is 49% and among those older than 65, it is 84%. That is such great news! And yet, at this midway point in the vaccination campaign, we are also faced with questions of equity and fairness. We want to lean into more life-giving communal activities even as we remember the many people in our community who are unable to participate in those activities.
Many of you are wondering if, in light of the recent change in guidance from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and from Governor Cooper, we can resume our customary worship. Although all of us wish for a return to regular community gatherings, our ability to do so is tempered by pandemic realities. There are almost 2,000 cases of Covid-19 reported every day in North Carolina. Orange County is still considered a high risk place for transmission. Young children still cannot be vaccinated, and there is increasing evidence that vaccines are not protective to many people with compromised immune systems.
While we will not ever be at zero risk from the virus, we are moving toward an increasingly lower risk rate. Our resumption of activities needs to keep in step with that lowering risk in order to protect the vulnerable in our midst.
At this point in our life with the pandemic, we recognize that different faith communities may adopt different guidelines to meet the needs of their houses of worship. But all of our congregations are committed to risk-mitigation practices in indoor worship services, urging outdoor events when possible, and encouraging face masks when unvaccinated people are at risk of Covid-19 exposure. We hold a common set of values. We seek to be good neighbors and good custodians of public health. And we are striving together to be attentive to inequities in Covid-19 exposure and vaccination.
We hope this update helps you to understand our concerns as we approach the summer and consider the future. We know that some may consider our approach too cautious at a time when the governor is loosening statewide restrictions. But we continue to feel it is right for our congregations to ensure that the worship of God does not contribute to the spread of illness. We hope that our congregations will continue to walk together as we “dial up” our religious assemblies and community activities through the summer.
Yours in faith -
Sarah Ball-Damberg, Church of the Holy Family
Will Rose, Holy Trinity Lutheran and Lutheran Campus Ministry
Cameron Barr, United Church of Chapel Hill
Justin Coleman, University United Methodist Church
Jen Feldman, Kehillah Synagogue
Damarcus Johnson, Life Church
Barry Jones, University Baptist Church
Jay Kennett, Hillsborough United Church of Christ
Michael Cousin, St. Paul AME Church
Curt Lowndes, The Gathering Church
Marcus McFaul, Binkley Baptist Church
Meg Peery McLaughlin and Jarrett McLaughlin, University Presbyterian
Elizabeth Marie Melchionna, The Chapel of the Cross
Adam Seate, Orange United Methodist Church
Ben Williams, Christ United Methodist Church
Dr. Rodney Coleman, First Baptist Church Chapel Hill
Lisa Fischbeck, The Episcopal Church of the Advocate
Isaac Villegas, Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship
Donnie L. Jones, Amity United Methodist Church