June 5, 2020

Newark houses of worship face new challenges as re-openings near

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From the landmark edifice of Sacred Heart Basilica and the mega-congregation at St. James AME Church, to the smaller parish churches, neighborhood mosques and hundreds of smaller missions holding worship services, Newark is a city of many faiths. In all, the city has roughly 650 faith-based organizations that anchor our neighborhoods.

Worship is an intrinsic part of our history. Our city began as a theocracy under Robert Treat, but in time began to welcome all religions from all corners of the world. You can see this history by walking just a few blocks down Broad Street, where many religious structures there are on the National Registry of Historic Places. From the ornate Byzantine-Romanesque architecture of the First Baptist Peddie Memorial to the functional simplicity of the Old First Presbyterian Church, Newark is home to truly magnificent and historic churches, synagogues and mosques.

The diversity of those churches in practiced faiths, demographics, languages, size of congregation and buildings, locations and types of ministries creates a challenge in how to manage cautious and safe re-openings of the buildings. We understand people need and miss the physical comfort and spirit of mass gatherings in their houses of worship.

Under the leadership of Mayor Ras J. Baraka, a committee of religious leaders was convened to seek input and advice and to hear the concerns of Newark’s vast religious community so that the safest guidelines could be developed.

Foremost, the committee is recommending every house of worship adhere to CDC guidelines of social distancing, wearing masks in public, frequent washing of hands, sanitization of common areas and COVID-19 testing of church leadership and congregants.

Secondly, we are asking the leaders of each House of Worship to evaluate how they can best adhere to these guidelines and submit their plans. For instance, mosques will space the prayer mats six feet apart while the Archdiocese of Newark is asking Catholics to receive the Holy Eucharist from the priest, step six feet away, lift their masks and take the hosts.

For Newark churches, this is not as simple as just preparing for Sunday services. It also involves the ministries of food distribution, walk-in help for the poor and homeless, drug rehab referrals and all the other services faith-based organizations provide for the community. We acknowledge we will have to adjust our practices for the safety of the congregants, from distributing electronic bulletins and missalettes, to enforcing masks and social distancing for marriages and baptisms.

On Sunday, June 7, at 2 p.m. Mayor Baraka will host an online discussion with clergy about the challenges we now face in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s statement regarding houses of worship. The President deemed them “essential businesses” but Gov. Phil Murphy suggests we proceed with caution.

In all re-opening matters, Mayor Baraka understands our city, in particular, must proceed with extreme caution. The mayor will provide the data and facts that tell the tragic story of African-American susceptibility to COVID-19. While the numbers of cases and deaths are declining, to not stay the course and allow the virus to rebound would be devastating to our community.

Thirteen prominent leaders who will participate in the discussion represent the diversity of faiths and ministries in our City. All Newark faith leaders are invited to participate and join the discussion through the City of Newark's Facebook page.

This is the second part of two-part virtual discussion and is part of the work of Mayor Baraka’s Newark Reopening and Recovery Strikeforce, a collaboration of city leaders that builds off the unprecedented cooperation between government, the private sector and organizations during the COVID-19 crisis.

This pandemic has brought unforeseen loss, sorrows and hardship to thousands upon thousands of Newark residents. These are truly times when faith cements us to hope, when prayer brings comfort and when the Spirit helps energize the tired body. Worship will get us through this, as it has so many times in the past.

(A version of this editorial ran in the Star-Ledger)