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Large El Paso religious congregations not yet reopening, despite governor’s OK

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As Texas begins to open up a select number of businesses, spiritual communities across El Paso are still taking precautions around COVID-19 seriously and caring for their members while giving them support and guidance.

Parishes across the Diocese of El Paso aren’t going to fully open their doors right now, spokesman Fernie Ceniceros said.

“It’s just not something we’re going to do,” Ceniceros said. “El Paso’s numbers are on the rise and we have a responsibility to care for our communities. Because those numbers are rising, we’re going to stay true to Bishop Mark Seitz’s letter.”

St. Patrick Cathedral and other El Paso Catholic parishes remain closed to the public due to the threat of COVID-19. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

In a letter on Tuesday, Seitz told El Paso Catholics that there would be too much risk in re-opening parishes because COVID-19 cases continue to rise in El Paso.

“The Church also feels a great responsibility to set an example to the rest of our community. Opening our churches would convey at this point a false sense of security about the risks of public gatherings here in El Paso,” Seitz wrote. “Many of our most fervent members are also people in the categories of highest risk, our senior citizens and those with underlying health conditions.”

Ceniceros said the diocese is receiving calls from people asking questions about services and church-related activities.

“You can call your parish and schedule to do confession on a one-to-one basis and that’s up to the comfort of the parish priest,” he said. “Our parishioners have been very patient. It’s a responsibility as Christians to look out for one another.”

Rabbi Levi Greenberg, associate rabbi at Chabad Lubavitch in West El Paso, said the synagogue also will remain closed for services at this time.

“A statement went out from the Chabad Lubavich Center’s Texas Regional Headquarters today (Thursday) that informed us that all synagogues will remain closed until Phase 2, which would be sometime around mid-May, and we’ll reassess where things are at that time,” Greenberg said.

“What we have been doing here is for what usually are in-person services during the week, we’ve been having Zoom meetings,” he said. “We cannot use this technology during the Sabbath but after Sabbath, we usually do. 

“During this time, we were able to make sure people could celebrate Passover and partnered with the Jewish Federation to provide items for elderly members. We have been doing our best to stay connected with people during these times. 

“These are definitely challenging times,” Greenberg said, “but thank God, everyone is healthy” as no one associated with Chabad Lubovitch has tested positive for COVID-19. 

Abundant Living Faith Center will keep its doors closed, too, this weekend, Jared Nieman, lead pastor of the church’s West Side campus, said.

Abundant Living Faith Center’s churches are staying closed for now because of COVID-19 risks. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“There is no one in our sanctuary on Sundays,” Nieman said. “We record different portions of our worship service in separate places and present a pre-recorded service online.

“Obviously we want to reopen but do it out of caution and wisdom,” he said. “We’re reviewing what the state has said and carefully reviewing the situation in El Paso and we will make decisions accordingly.”

This week, Abundant Living Faith Center donated 25,000 protective masks to first-responders and local organizations as part of the church’s ongoing community outreach.

Charlie Arellano, executive pastor at Cielo Vista Church in East El Paso, said worship services and church-related classes and community activities will continue to be shown online through the end of June. 

“We have been working on some initiatives and protocols that we are putting in place already and some phasing steps to bring our congregation together when that time is approved by the state and local officials,” Arellano said. “Our main goal in all of this is the safety and well-being of our congregation.”

Arellano added that “the key, though, on this is that our plan right now is constructed to be flexible and we will always side on the attitude of the safety and health of our staff and congregation as a first priority.”

Ruben Sanchez, associate pastor at Harvest Christian Center, said worshippers are holding regular weekly Bible studies with Zoom calls. Sanchez added that they are using social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to keep in touch.

“We livestream our services on Sundays to keep our members safe,” Sanchez said. “We also continue to reach out to our elderly and ill members to make sure their needs are met.”

As for reopening Harvest Christian Center for regular worship services, Sanchez said they were looking to open at the end of May per Mayor Dee Margo’s guidance.

“I understand about the governor opening of the state, but we’re trusting city officials around doing what they think is best to keep this under control.”

Ceniceros said different faith communities have an opportunity to come together, much like they did in the wake of the Aug. 3, 2019, Walmart massacre that killed 23 people. 

“It’s a very stressful time,” he said. “We can pray for each other, protect one another when going out, and be mindful of your neighbor. Find a way to look out for each other, especially those who have lost loved ones to this disease.”

“We’re experiencing life at a different normal, but these are times where God calls us to take these opportunities to know what our true priorities are, like our family and our Almighty,” Sanchez said.

Cover photo: Cielo Vista Church remains closed because of COVID-19 but is livestreaming services.

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Joe Rutland

Joe Rutland is a freelance journalist who lives in El Paso. He's a former assistant city editor with The El Paso Times and has worked for newspapers in Texas and Arizona as a reporter, columnist, and copy editor.

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