It is said that Jesus prepares a place for the faithful, the Very Rev. Michael Sniffen noted during his sermon Sunday.
But he conceded his flock probably wasn’t expecting that place to be a marked circle under a tent outside their church, the stunning Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, as congregants gathered in person for the first time since March. The church had been hosting only interactive online services since the coronavirus pandemic hit.
“It is such a joy — and although you can’t see me smiling, I’m smiling — to be in your physical presence after all of these months,” Sniffen said.
More than two dozen members, all wearing masks and keeping a social distance from others, sat in camping chairs and on the grass under a tent. Registration was required and churchgoers were given the option of observing from their vehicles or from farther away. The church is still urging those over 62 or with compromised immune systems to continue worshipping online until a vaccine is available.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in May said houses of worship in New York could resume in-person gatherings under strict limits. At the same time President Donald Trump pushed for their reopening, but Bishop Lawrence C. Provenzano of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island told Newsday then the church was not ready.
“The church is the people of God. The church is not the buildings,” Provenzano said.
The Episcopal Diocese of Long Island instead recommended services resume no sooner than July 1. Cathedral of Incarnation chose not to host the first in-person service over the Independence Day weekend, opting for July 12. Sniffen said the church would adhere to “the cautious side of” all federal, state and county guidelines.
Among the church’s directives were recommendations to wear masks, use hand sanitizer, keeping a safe distance from one another and limiting entrance to the tent to one location. There was no Communion offering — significantly shortening the service — and the donation basket remained in one spot.
Among the returning members were Keith and Marita Okrosy of Hempstead and their 5-year-old son Liam.
“The online services were nice, but being here in person and seeing other people and experiencing the moment in that way, it’s hard to explain but it’s a different feeling,” Keith Okrosy, 41, said.
Sally Schreier, 88, of Garden City has been a member of Cathedral of Incarnation for 60 years and was among the returnees on Sunday. She attended services with her husband Henry until he died in 2018 at the age of 87.
A daughter showed her how to log on for online service, but it didn’t compare to the real thing. Schreier teared up when asked what it meant for her to be able to return to the church.
“It just meant everything to me,” she said. “Dean Sniffen has made huge steps to make it a community gathering to worship God.”
Sniffen, who wore shorts and flip-flops for the outdoor service, cited the Apostle Paul in referencing that community.
“Nothing can separate us from that love,” he said. “Nothing can separate us from each other. Nothing can stop the mission of God in the world.”