Church services have been a sometimes controversial topic since the coronavirus pandemic began in March.
Then even more restrictive Stay At Home orders were issued Dec. 6 in Long Beach. That lockdown stretches past Christmas, leaving church leaders scrambling to keep Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services as meaningful as in past years.
"We made the decision back in September," Pastor Dave Clark said at Bay Shore Community Church. "We knew we had to prepare if we were going to provide a meaningful virtual Christmas Eve, so we committed to it."
Clark was speaking during a break from video taping the lighting of candles portion of the service last Thursday, Dec. 10. Musical performances before the camera started in October. Soon, it will be up to Chap Cooper, the church's videographer and sound engineer, to put it all together for its premiere next Thursday, Dec. 24.
Every church in the area is approaching Christmas Eve a little differently. While many are doing remote only services, some are meeting outside, with social distancing.
St. Bartholomew Catholic Church, just down the Toledo from Bay Shore Community, will have outside masses — three Christmas Eve masses at 4, 6 and 8 p.m. in the courtyard and on the lawn, with three Christmas Day masses at 8, 9:30 and 11 a.m., also outside.
"People’s lives have been turned upside down with illness, death, loss of work and much fear and anxiety," Father Michael Reardon said in his Christmas message. "The closing of churches has challenged us in our coming together as community to worship God — the very soul of people. For some it seems the light for people has diminished or gone out.
"Albert Schweitzer (the French author and philosopher) tells us: ‘Sometimes our light goes out, but it is blown again into instant flame by an encounter with another human being.' And this, I feel, is true. We need each other for it is in and through each other that we use our strengths to keeping going."
Grace Community Church in Seal Beach also will be outside on Christmas Eve, but not on church property. The Seal Beach government has agreed to allow Christmas Eve afternoon (2:30 and 4:30 p.m.) services at Eisenhower Park, at the entrance to the Seal Beach Pier.
"Planning Christmas Eve services this year raised a number of good questions for our church," senior Pastor Bob Wriedt said. "What is the best way to serve our community? What is essential about Christmas Eve and what could we change? How can we turn the limitations we're facing into creative opportunities? I hope that we're honoring Jesus in the way we addressed these questions and serving our neighbors well."
Grace also will provide a remote service on line; they have had both in person and online services for the last couple of months.
First Congregational Church in downtown Long Beach has been online only since the beginning of the pandemic, and senior minister The Rev. Elena Larssen said the YouTube services have been so popular they will continue even after in-person services are allowed again.
Regarding celebrating Christmas Eve during a pandemic, Larssen said, "This year, the problems of our society are even more obvious, unmasked by the virus. We see who is hungry, facing racism on a daily basis, we see who works in dangerous jobs. At Christmas time, the church has an ancient reason to step forward in faith and show hope to the world. Christmas in a pandemic means finding the silver linings and letting them sparkle.”
Several church leaders said being forced to provide online services has expanded their reach, and likely will continue in some form in the future. But, especially with Christmas Eve, the message is more important than the way it's delivered, they said.
"It (Christmas Eve services) just means so much now," Pastor Clark said. "It can bring us together even while we are apart."