First published in the Nov. 26 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
For many churchgoers in South Pasadena, one of the best holiday gifts they are getting this year is just being inside their church this Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas season.
“We chose to return together in the sanctuary on Easter Sunday,” recalled Rev. Lincoln Skinner, senior minister of Oneonta Congregational Church. “Many of our members wept tears of joy, not realizing how much they missed hearing the organ play and enjoying the familiarity of our beloved house of worship. Some of our more seasoned members shared that it had been the longest stretch of time they had ever been away from the sanctuary in the past six months.”
That was Easter and since then, more of the city’s churches have reopened doors to those sanctuaries. Some of the ministers report more congregants than ever, while others, such as Terry Daniels, described his congregation at Grace Brethren Church as continuing to “plod along.”
“We are still stripped to the basic worship and prayer routines we established during the lockdown,” Daniels, the church’s lead pastor, said. “Our fearful members are still not ready to return to the building. We stopped streaming our Sunday services in October to try and nudge them back toward the building.
“We do not think that healthy Christianity can be lived in isolation,” he added. “Our success has been limited. Attitudes are good and I think we are healthy. Giving has been solid through the entire ordeal.”
Grace Brethren, at 920 Fremont Ave., also hosts Spanish- and Mandarin-speaking congregations; Daniels said the Spanish-speaking congregation has “picked up the most steam.”
Both groups have had to weigh the COVID risks of worshipping in person, however, with the benefits of expressing and feeling faith as a community. Some spray down the worship hall with disinfectant before a sermon.
Skinner said that the church renters at Oneonta, located at 1515 Garfield Ave., have mostly returned in force since September, with six churches meeting regularly on its campus. Oneonta’s membership has even experienced growth during what he labelled the congregation’s “challenging time.”
“We now have a deeper sense of gratitude and appreciation for our faith in God, our church home and for one another,” Skinner said.
And out of those challenging times, have come interesting changes.
Calvary Presbyterian Church, used to have a more formal 10 a.m. service, and then a less formal 11 a.m. service. The Rev. Millason Dailey has used the return to the sanctuary in October to merge two services into one — beginning at 10:30 a.m. — and every week might offer a different genre of service — from jazz to rock (a U2 eucharist, anyone?), to organ or choral music.
“The congregation has had wonderful things to say about it,” Dailey said. “It’s its own thing rather than two separate things.”
The choral music is back, but alas for many fans, this will be the second Christmas without the church’s previously annual presentation of “The Messiah.” The performances started after the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11, and this would have been the 20th anniversary.
“We’re still getting calls wondering if we are going to have it this year,” Dailey said. “It always produced big crowds, and people tended to want to sing through the entire performance.”
A mission market where people could purchase gift cards to such groups as Heifer International, Habitat for Humanity and Living Waters for the World went online last year and the church collected $18,000 in sales of gift cards. The success has the church deciding to continue the practice this year from Dec. 1-15, with details on the church’s website.
There’s also a reverse Advent Calendar, where each day people give a certain item which is also specified on the church’s website.
The South Pasadena Christian Church, at 1316 Lyndon St., has been back in its sanctuary since Father’s Day and Senior Pastor Darrell Haley concluded “we are slowly, but surely getting back to some semblance of our normal service.”
“We are looking forward to the holidays together,” Haley continued.
This year, Haley’s church will resume several of its traditions which the quarantine suspended, including the Christmas pageant on Dec. 19 during the morning service and the Christmas Eve service starting at 6 p.m. on Dec. 24.
The Advent calendar at St. James Episcopal Church, at 1325 Monterey Road, is full both in and outside the sanctuary. There is Advent wreath making on Nov. 28; Advent caroling on Dec. 5; the church’s Living Manger, also on Dec. 5; and a choral Eucharist with Strings, on Christmas Eve and a Eucharist Service with soloists on Christmas Day.
Even the return of small things have been welcomed.
“We’ve restarted our Sunday coffee service and Sunday school programs in outdoor settings,” Skinner said of Oneonta. “It seems that people genuinely missed our Vanilla Nut coffee, too.”
The ministers I corresponded or talked with all understood why some people still needed to rely on Zoom services, but they felt they did better when the congregation met in person.
“We had hundreds of people watch us online,” said Dailey, who included a cooking segment with her daughter for Calvary. “We had people tuning in from all over the world.”
Calvary has an online offering, but Dailey much prefers to be able to look at her congregation while she is preaching.
“You can tell people are excited to feel more ‘normal,’” Dailey said of the resumed in-person services.
One aspect of the holidays that Dailey expects to be back to its pre-pandemic ways is attendance on Christmas Eve, which begins at 5 p.m. that day.
“We’re really going to be back to where we were before the pandemic,” Dailey said.
Columnist’s Note: I’ll try to provide more calendar service dates and times next week.