At newly reopened Washougal United Methodist Church, safety is paramount

Clark County churches are allowed to have limited in-person services under Phase 2 of state's reopening plan

Parishioners listen to pastor Vivian Hiestand deliver a sermon during a service at Washougal United Methodist Church on Sunday, July 5. (Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

Washougal United Methodist Church music director Anton Zotov plays "Amazing Grace" during a service on Sunday, July 5. (Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

Washougal United Methodist Church pastor Vivian Hiestand delivers a sermon during a service on Sunday, July 5. (Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

Washougal United Methodist Church member Tom Crozier sings "Amazing Grace" during a service on Sunday, July 5. (Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

When the Washougal United Methodist Church (WUMC) closed in mid-March due the COVID-19 outbreak, pastor Vivian Hiestand knew some of her parishioners would struggle with the loss of the social comforts that in-person worship gatherings provide. But, at the same time, she had absolutely no doubt that closing was the right choice.
“(Losing the feeling of togetherness) was a big concern. It’s hard for us to stay connected because we can’t see each other physically,” she said. “But we don’t want anybody to get sick because they came to church. We think church is incredibly important, but we don’t want to do anything to harm people. We can’t be a church and say, ‘We don’t care.’”
Now that WUMC has reopened with strict safety protocols in place, Hiestand can say with a clear conscience that she’s done everything she can to ensure the safety of her parishioners while they’re at church.
“We’re able to say that we did it right,” she said. “If we have to close again, we’ll close. But we’re always going to (prioritize) health and safety. Always.”
Washington churches closed in March as part of the state’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order, drawing criticism from some religious leaders who claimed Gov. Jay Inslee overstepped his authority by prohibiting faith-based freedoms while exempting other industries.
WUMC leaders focused on what they could do to ensure their parishioners’ physical and mental health.
“One of the most severe outbreaks occurred in a church in northern Washington, where the whole choir got infected. The governor extrapolated (the incident) to all churches, and was tougher on churches than some other groups or organizations,” said Washougal resident Tom Crozier, WUMC’s treasurer. “But that was never a serious frustration for us. We’re sensitive to the safety of our congregation, some of whom have medical issues, and we wanted to make sure that we did things right to make our church as safe as we can.”
WUMC reopened Sunday, June 21, with Hiestand preaching in front of about 20 people, down from the 55 or so that normally attend services.
“We have some people that have compromised immune systems who may not be back until we get to the fourth phase, or until there is a vaccine,” Crozier said.
Washougal resident Kalle Fletcher, a WUMC member, said that she is confident in the safety protocols that have been put into place.
“Honestly, the biggest challenge for me is that I’m a hugger, so it will be hard to restrain myself and keep my distance from people that I’ve grown close to,” Fletcher said. “But other than that I won’t have any big concerns. I know that a lot of precautions have been taken to make sure that everyone can worship in comfort and not worry too much about spreading (the virus).”
After WUMC suspended all of its in-person services on March 13, “there was a lot of confusion and not a lot of clarity,” according to Hiestand, who chose to move forward by implementing a variety of virtual platforms to keep her congregation connected during the pandemic.
The church’s worship sessions are streamed live on Zoom, then posted to its YouTube channel. In addition, the church continues to hold its weekly classes on Zoom and is developing a new website.
“I didn’t have a lot of experience with those things, but I learned a lot, and we tried to be as creative as we could,” Hiestand said. “It’s worked OK. A lot of our (parishioners) are older and don’t know a lot about (newer technology), but they said, ‘What the heck, I’ll give it a try.’”
In April, the church convened a five-person safety committee “to basically figure out what we need to do to reopen safely,” according to Crozier, one of the committee members.
“The deep cleaning was the biggest issue, because there was a lot of competition for contractors who could come in and do a professional job and satisfy all of the requirements,” Crozier said. “But once we got that lined up, it worked out fine. We had a very good plan and executed it well, and we haven’t run into any issues.”
In late May, Inslee announced that religious and faith-based organizations could restart services under updated safety guidelines which place limits on the number of attendees. WUMC postponed its reopening for several weeks to ensure all of its safety measures were adequate.
“We ask people to wear masks and physically distance,” Hiestand said. “We provide self-check, no-touch thermometers. We’re discouraging hugs and other forms of personal contact. We’re giving out sanitizer like candy in the bathrooms. We posted signage. We blocked off seats. We’re doing contact tracing. Before we reopened, we checked and double-checked all of the rules. I am confident that we’ve taken every precaution, and that we’re doing everything humanly possible to ensure our members’ safety. We’ve been very scrupulous about all of the health guidelines.”
“We had to change certain aspects of the way we handle the service,” Washougal resident Barbara Crozier, Tom’s wife, added, “but I think we’re doing everything right as much as we possibly can. We’re really happy to be open again. The transition (to virtual service) wasn’t really that hard, but we still missed seeing people in person.”
WUMC held another indoor service on Sunday, June 28, and an outdoor service and picnic on Sunday, July 5.
“I figured that since the governor says that (an outdoor service) is OK, why not have one?” Hiestand said. “A lot of people that are health compromised can (participate) outdoors more readily than indoors. We have three acres of grass, so we can provide a safe, fun time.”
Hiestand said that she’ll send out a survey to elicit feedback about the outdoor service, but expects to hold similar events semi-regularly in the future.