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Yakima Valley faith leaders offer poignant message of hope at Easter as pandemic continues

Members of The River Church in Moxee dedicated their building on the first full weekend of March 2020 after meeting there a few months. They closed it the following weekend because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A week later, the church began streaming services on Facebook. After a few small outdoor services in late summer, members moved back inside in September at 25% capacity. They had worked toward buying and renovating the former hardware store for years, and temporarily closing their first permanent home was tough. But they missed gathering together even more.

“It was a real downer. After all that work and all that excitement and momentum, everything shut down — not just Sunday services, but also home groups, everything,” said Pastor Michael Johnson. “It’s been quite an interesting year.”

With Yakima County in Phase 3, churches are open at 50% capacity and moving toward normal even as they take precautions. Youth at The River Church are meeting on Wednesday evenings, but the church didn’t hold a Good Friday service because members are trying to limit additional activities, Johnson said.

Easter is a time of hope for faith communities around the world. Those attending services today will hear a message of hope, likely tinged with sadness. Churches, some already struggling just to retain members, have suffered great losses in the past year.

Toppenish United Methodist Church closed permanently after 134 years. But a new church — Saint Andrew’s Presbyterian in Yakima — began holding services. Others experimented with ways to deliver their message, finding what worked for their congregations, keeping and even adding members.

Religious leaders also took on new roles within the constraints of a pandemic. In Grandview, the Rev. Jesús Alatorre is still getting to know his parishioners. He joined Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church as its priest in early October, and has seen most members only when they’re wearing a mask.

His Easter sermon carries a timeless message of caring for each other, with a twist.

“Trust in God and pray and work all together to improve our society, to improve ourselves,” Alatorre said. “Get vaccinated.”

New home, delayed

The River Church began in early 2014 with a few families in Moxee and East Valley and partnerships with several Baptist churches. Bible studies in homes led to Sunday worship at Johnson’s home, a move into the community room of Moxee City Hall and purchase of the old hardware store downtown thanks to many generous donors.

When the pandemic hit, members wondered how they could continue to be a church if they couldn’t meet. They started livestream services on Facebook. Some who aren’t connected with the church have watched as well, Johnson said. He plans to keep doing online services in some way for the foreseeable future.

“There have been technical issues. It is what it is,” he said. “We’re going to try to do the best we can so people can get a sense of what’s happening and at least hear the word of God preached.”

Of course, the message of Easter is the Resurrection, Johnson said. All are experiencing death in some way because of the pandemic, he said. They’re seeing it on the news or they’re reading about it or they know people who have died from coronavirus.

No one is immune from death, but the whole point of the Resurrection is that Christ has defeated death. Because of that, people have hope, Johnson said.

“We certainly have hope that not as many people are dying of coronavirus ... and things will get back to some kind of normal. It’s given us something to hope for,” he added.

“Also, we see glimpses of resurrection in our church. Churches were shut down; some churches were as good as dead. But even in our own stories of reopening and regathering and that celebration and that fellowship that we have because we belong to Jesus, that in that way too is a little illustration of the Resurrection.”

New role in a pandemic

Alatorre started at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church on Oct. 1 and has been the only priest in Grandview for the past six months. After being ordained as a priest in 2018, he served a little over two years as assistant priest at St. Paul Cathedral in Yakima.

Blessed Sacrament has four Masses every weekend; two in Spanish and two in English. About 100 people attend each Mass. Some are still watching from home, Alatorre said, but “little by little, they are coming back.”

“Even the people who come to Mass every weekend, I’m not sure if I know them because we have masks all the time,” Alatorre added. “It’s just if I see them without a mask, I’m not sure I will recognize them. It’s strange.”

He has been visiting parishioners in their homes, taking COVID-19 precautions. Alatorre is fully vaccinated. It’s important to go to their homes because he wants parishioners to know he’s there for them and ready to help as they deal with difficult situations. People have to protect each other, he said.

“I’m trying to give them hope, just to talk together through the situation and be also ready to serve,” he said. “I’m here to help them and to pray for them and am ready to help, too, whatever they need.”

He knows some people are depressed because of the pandemic, along with everyday struggles, and wants to change that. With his words on Easter, Alatorre will encourage parishioners to escape bad situations “and have hope. Just have hope,” he said.

“Christ went through many difficult situations. He is there for us,” Alatorre said. “He knows when we are going through difficult situations. He can understand this. He can walk with us.”

Making adjustments

Like many other faith leaders, Pastor Adam Copenhaver of Mabton Grace Brethren Church in Mabton took services online a year ago. But it became clear that approach, which has worked for some churches, wasn’t going to work for his rural congregation.

“Because so many of our people are so rural, and impoverished and elderly, we very quickly transitioned to drive-in services,” said Copenhaver, noting the church has a large parking lot. “We started doing it around the first of May. ... We have people that come from Bickleton (and the) Horse Heaven Hills.”

They tried making and delivering DVDs for a couple of weeks, but some members don’t have DVD players or don’t know how to use them, he added. Early last fall, as soon as they could, members began meeting in person.

A native of Sunnyside, Copenhaver has led Mabton Grace Brethren for about eight years. The church has about 75 members and is known for the free, open mic gospel jamborees it has held on a regular basis in the past, among other activities.

As Copenhaver said, the drive-in services did not fully accomplish the mission of being a church community. “So much of what we do as a church is not a worship service,” he said. “The pandemic and protocols have reduced the church down to a worship service, but we’re much more than a worship service.”

Mabton Grace Brethren Church is doing pretty well on the whole, Copenhaver said. That’s probably reflective of most of churches he’s connected to in the Lower Valley. And his church building is big enough that there will be room for all who want to gather there today.

He and his members are hopeful for the future, but still being cautious about future plans.

“We’re taking it week by week. Things are pretty much tentative at this point,” he said.

‘Planting’ a church

In Yakima, members of Saint Andrew’s Presbyterian Church are celebrating their church’s first Easter Sunday today in rented space in the former First Baptist Church downtown. Saint Andrew’s is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America denomination and is considered a church “planting,” said Pastor Craig Harris, who grew up in Sunnyside. Membership is about 80.

The new church has drawn a lot of interest because it came together in the past year. Its first anniversary was March 28.

“A lot of people call me and ask me about it. We don’t have books on written on how do you plant a church during a pandemic,” Harris said.

Interest was there before the pandemic, when Harris was living in Bellingham. He had been coming to Yakima to meet with others once a month before churches closed because of COVID-19. Online groups meeting about the church became online services by the church. A few outdoor events began in June, then members started meeting in small groups at Harris’ house after he moved to Yakima.

In October, the church began meeting in rented space at the historic Baptist church. That will continue. “We’re growing still,” Harris said.

The title of his Easter Sunday message is “Surprised by Hope.” People think pain is the worst thing that could happen, but it surprisingly can bring out hope, Harris said.

He mentioned Luke 24, where the women come to the tomb and expect Jesus to still be there. They are surprised before they remember what Jesus told them, Harris said.

“For Him to conquer death, he had to actually die. He had to experience the pain,” he said. “It’s not pain for no reason. It’s hope. No matter what comes our way, we can have hope beyond reason because He conquered death.

“These things that are painful are the things that actually bring us hope and joy.”

Coming out of the cave: As life creeps back, some feel dread

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Dinner reservations are gleefully being made again. Long-canceled vacations are being booked. People are coming together again, in some of the ways they used to.

But not everyone is racing back.

Their stories are emerging as the world begins to reopen — people secretly dreading each milestone toward normalcy, envisioning instead anxiety-inducing crowds and awkward catch-up conversations. Even small tasks outside the home — a trip to the grocery store, or returning to the office — can feel overwhelming.

Psychologists call it re-entry fear, and they’re finding it more common as headlines herald the imminent return to post-pandemic life.

“I have embraced and gotten used to this new lifestyle of avoidance that I can’t fathom going back to how it was. I have every intention of continuing to isolate myself,” says Thomas Pietrasz, who lives alone and works from his home in the Chicago suburbs as a content creator. His alcohol and marijuana use also increased during the pandemic.

Pietrasz says his anxiety has grown markedly worse as talk of post-vaccine life grows. He says he got used to “hiding at home and taking advantage of curbside and delivery in order to avoid every situation with people.”

As the world edges back toward some semblance of normal life, many report challenges like Pietrasz’s playing out in their own lives. The time at home — lockdown, dread, fear, isolation — has changed them and made existing worries worse or created new ones entirely.

“It’s been a mix of reactions,” says Amy Cirbus, Director of Clinical Content at Talkspace, an online mental health group with nearly 50,000 current clients. “Some people are very relieved about going back to normal. Others are struggling. Many people are experiencing spikes in anxiety as they feel they aren’t ready for re-entry.”

While some felt restricted by the confinement of home, others found safety, comfort and even enjoyment there, internalizing the isolation into what some psychiatrists consider a dysfunctional baseline of behavior.

Like many others, Pietrasz said his anxiety is largely unrelated to catching COVID and more about social interactions. Psychologists say fears about leaving home have little to do with reasonable concerns about spreading the virus and sometimes can’t be pinpointed or aren’t based in reality.

In some cases, psychologists say the manifestation is subtle, like someone who begins making repeated excuses to avoid meeting up with friends, even within a safe, socially distanced setting or if they’ve been vaccinated. But some cases are more extreme, says Dr. Arthur Bregman, a psychiatrist who noticed this phenomenon in his Miami practice and dubbed it “cave syndrome.”

“The people who have the most anxiety disorders in my practice, they are the worst-affected. They can’t even get out,” says Bregman, who has been studying the 1918 influenza pandemic’s psychological impact on the world.

After that lockdown, roughly 40% of the population would be diagnosed with what we now call PTSD, Bregman says. “It took 10 years for the people to get out of this,” he says.

The pandemic exacerbated issues for those already struggling with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. But some patients are experiencing these symptoms for the first time.

Dr. Julie Holland, a New York psychiatrist, says the pandemic triggered new trauma for some, especially in the unpredictable early weeks of lockdown as people questioned whether there would be enough food or if it was even safe to touch their mail.

According to a survey in February by the American Psychological Association, nearly half the respondents said they felt uneasy about adjusting to in-person interactions once the pandemic ends. Shockingly, vaccination status had little impact on people’s responses, with 48% of vaccinated adults saying they still felt uneasy.

“You’ve been taught for an entire year to distance yourself from people and you’ve learned to be afraid of people because they could make you sick or kill you,” Holland says. “There’s no question that it’s easier to learn to be afraid than to be unafraid.”

The fight-or-flight physical manifestations like racing heart, trouble breathing and feeling dizzy can be terrifying.

“People who are really free and they’re planning their vacations are really upsetting my patients because they’re challenging their level of fear and risk tolerance,” says Dr. Sharon Batista, a New York psychiatrist who has noticed a spike in patient referrals since the holidays.

Children and teens are especially vulnerable. Before the pandemic, 17-year-old Erin had lots of close friends, but said those interactions slowly waned while on lockdown in the DC suburbs. Now she barely talks to them.

She’s dreading “having to catch up and go through all that small talk stuff that nobody likes,” said the high school junior, who has been on anxiety medication for several years. The Associated Press is only using her first name because she is a minor.

“A year ago, I went outside hoping I’d run into a friend from school and go on an adventure,” she recently posted on social media. “Now, I’m terrified to leave the house because I’m afraid I’ll run into a friend from school and go on an adventure.”

Nicole Russell became so fearful of leaving her Miami home that she retreated to her bedroom for days at a time, unable to interact with others inside the home, including her 11-year-old daughter. It got so bad that she was often up all night, sleeping during the day, checking social media obsessively and cleaning constantly, even scrubbing the floor with a toothbrush .

“I would not leave my little corridor for days at a time because I could not deal with the pressures of talking to other people,” says Russell, who left notes to remind herself to shower and brush her teeth. “I wasn’t living, that’s for sure.”

Last Month, Russell even waved off family and friends when they tried to plan something small for her birthday last month. “We were forced into isolation,” she says, “and now we’ve grown accustomed to it.”

Experts say taking small steps over time is one of the most effective treatments. The more patients go to the store or see friends, the more they’ll discover the forgotten enjoyment of social interactions and learn that much of the world is unchanged, making it easier to venture out again. Others may need medication.

Russell, who described herself as “nonfunctional,” took some steps in that direction recently. She forced herself to take a terrifying trip to the grocery store. She saw people laughing and talking, and she was inspired.

She started therapy along with an antidepressant. It worked, she says, and within a week things were far better. Now, “I’m up and moving around and I want to start catching up with everybody.”


Follow Florida-based Associated Press writer Kelli Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/kkennedyAP