How One Church Adapted During the 10-Person Limit in Massachusetts

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When most churches in Massachusetts were all but closed to the public because of the governor’s order, New England Baptist Church in Medford never did.

Pastor Joseph Hawkins and New England Baptist Church in Medford did not stop in-person church services. Instead, the pastor added a service and followed Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s March 23 executive order limiting most gatherings to 10 or fewer people.

To allow more than 10 people to come, the church used two rooms — one upstairs and one downstairs — to hold simultaneous services. Pastor Hawkins said the church building has about 10,000 square feet, so there was sufficient room for it.

The hard limit on church services is over now. On Monday, May 18, the governor issued a new executive order that allows public church services if the people who attend take up no more than 40 percent of the building’s capacity, wear masks, and keep social distancing. Churches are also supposed to be disinfected between services.

New England Baptist Church took advantage of the new rules Wednesday, May 20, Pastor Hawkins said, holding a service that drew 33 people.

But even when the governor’s limit was 10, New England Baptist Church kept its doors open.

The church held three events on Sundays — an adult Sunday school at 9:30 a.m., a morning service at 10:30 a.m., and a night service at 6 p.m. — plus a 7 p.m. Wednesday night Bible study.

“Church is essential,” Pastor Hawkins told New Boston Post in a telephone interview before the 10-person limit was lifted. “For many years, it’s helped people spiritually and mentally. During this time, people are dealing with mental issues caused by many things. It could be alcohol abuse or the stress of life during this time. We’re limited in what we can do now, but it’s important for mental and spiritual reasons for God’s people to meet.”

The truncated in-person services were hardly what Pastor Hawkins would consider “church.” He pointed out that the Greek word for church is ekklesia, which he said roughly translates to “assembly of believers.”

Pastor Hawkins told New Boston Post that he sees the governor’s previous restrictions on in-person church services as a violation of both the U.S. Constitution and the Massachusetts Constitution. (Article 46, Section One of the state constitution states:  “No law shall be passed prohibiting the free exercise of religion.”)

“You look at what’s going on in society and I’d say it’s an attack on religious freedom and our First Amendment rights to assemble peacefully,” he said before the new executive order. “It’s an attack on freedom. We see it with my friends Pastor Nick White and Pastor Kris Casey, and others in New England states who are facing the same thing. It’s one of those things where we have to stand up for our rights.”

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t respect government officials,” he added. “We should respect them, but we have to stand up for our rights.”

Victory Baptist Church in Dedham, which Pastor Nick White leads, got a cease-and-desist letter a couple of weeks ago because White wanted to hold two separate Sunday church services with 10 people or fewer. And Pastor Kris Casey of Adams Square Baptist Church of Worcester had an application for a criminal complaint filed against him by the Worcester police for holding four socially distanced in-person church services exceeding 10 people over the course of three weeks. (The criminal complaint is still pending, as is a federal lawsuit Casey filed against the governor’s March 23 executive order on freedom-of-religion grounds.)

During the 56 days of the governor’s 10-person-limit executive order (March 23 to May 18), Pastor Hawkins said, he did not hear anything from city officials in Medford.

To prevent the spread of the virus, Pastor Hawkins’s church took precautions. Church members cleaned and disinfected the church between services. People who came had their temperature checked at the door. Masks and gloves were mandatory. Every attendee was required to sit at least six feet apart from others.

Before the service, ushers guided church attendees to their seats. Afterward, they guide the attendees out of the building.

“There’s no real congregating or fellowshipping after the service,” he said. “To many, it seems super cautious, but it’s what we have to do during this time to show the government we can be safe, do things the right way, and still be open. I think every business could do this, you just have to trust them.”

He acknowledged that people at risk may have to play it safe.

Pastor Hawkins said the church recommends the elderly and people with preexisting health conditions watch the Internet live streams of the services rather than attend the in-person services.