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A very COVID Christmas: Austin churches adjust and make plans for Christmas service
(Hyde Park Baptist Church)

Gospel singer Wintley Phipps sings at the Hyde Park Baptist Church.

Since turning to Zoom church services, Isabel Sheldon's preferred place of worship is no longer where she wishes to hear the word of God. She says she would love to meet fellow worshipers for an in-person church service but understands that it's not easy during a global pandemic.


"I lost interest in joining Zoom for meetings," Sheldon says.

Sheldon, a retired Austin teacher, sought out other options and turned to the Pentecostal church where her nephew is the pastor, which offers in-person services.

"The service was uplifting," she says. At the entrance, Church goers selected one of three ribbons: green for "you can hug," red for "do not touch" and yellow for "you have to stay six feet away from me."

From masked congregations enjoying world-class gospel via Zoom to socially distanced in-person events, Austin churches are taking measures to keep this year's Christmas celebrations from becoming a super-spreader occasion.

On Dec. 15, Travis County Judge Andy Brown and Austin Mayor Steve Adler sent a letter to Austin's faith community leaders, imploring them to support the city's efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 by hosting virtual worship services and enforcing social distancing and masking guidelines.

But judging from the prophylactic measures taken by parishes and pulpits alike, Austin churches were already committed to containing contagions while spreading the word.

The Diocese of Austin, made up of 127 parishes over 25 counties in Central Texas, plans to offer Mass both in person and over live stream on Christmas, following the protocols to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, said Shelley Metcalf, editor of the Austin Diocese's monthly newspaper the Catholic Spirit.

A Dec. 16 statement from the Diocese of Austin brings attention to the church's efforts to follow safety protocols for Mass: "We hold to our belief in the sanctity of human life, which calls us to remain vigilant in our care for one another through these proven protocols." It continued: "The Church will diligently follow these protocols for the sake of all God's people and the common good of our community."

When Austin churches began to reopen in May, they were keenly aware that they could do so only by following guidelines, which included socially distanced seating and leaving every other row empty. Per state order, places of worship are not subject to the county order that limits gatherings to 10 people.

Hyde Park Baptist Church modified its annual Christmas concert program to maintain safety amid COVID-19. One of the biggest changes was only seating 500 people, of its Worship Center's 2,000-person capacity.

"Since our orchestra and choir have not practiced together since March, we did not have our usual Christmas presentation," says Becky Shipp, assistant to the senior pastor. Instead, the church brought in special guest soloist Wintley Phipps, a superstar gospel talent who has performed for U.S. presidents, to sing in its Christmas presentation earlier this month.

To follow safety protocols, Shipp says the church's traditional Christmas Eve service will be held in two services instead of one, so fewer people will be at each service.

Drive-thru Santa event at Bannockburn Church. (Bannockburn Church)

Finding creative ways to figure out Christmas gatherings has been the rule this yule. For instance, Bannockburn Church offered a "Drive Thru Santa" family picture event at their South Austin campus on Dec. 19.

"We had over 150 cars drive by. The kids were so excited to wave to Santa Claus and speak to him through a 'Santa Phone,' and parents were grateful to snap a family picture," says Stephanie Robinson, the church's communications director.

Life Tabernacle Austin, which typically holds 300 people, is only allowing 100 people in the building currently. The church is making the most of Zoom and Facebook.

Bishop Frank Balboa says the new norm is live streaming, and the youth are the ones to pick up the reigns and help the pastors out.

"I am not reaching out to just two hundred of our membership—we are reaching out to families and friends and it's amazing, you know, something like this can really turn into a blessing," he said. "People are connecting from different parts of the world."

The change toward a more pixelated worship service has been difficult, but it's a blessing in disguise, Balboa added.

"Even though it's a difficult time ... we're moving (toward better) ... the church is not closed."

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