May 29, 2021

Dear Members and Friends of First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem:

About a month ago, we gave you an update on the current status of our facilities, including the key question of what conditions would allow us to resume some form of indoor, in-person worship.

We told you at that point that we had decided that a “sustained decline” in the vaccination appointment rate in the Lehigh Valley would be the metric which would determine when we could begin worshipping indoors again. This metric was chosen because vaccination is, without question, the single most important factor in making public assembly a reasonably safe possibility again.

And, we felt it was crucial that we allow everyone to have the opportunity to be vaccinated and achieve immunity before we begin indoor worship again, in order to be true to our congregation’s core value of being “Welcoming to All.”

It is with great relief and joy that we announce that we reported to the Session on May 24 that we believed the key metric of a sustained decline in the vaccination appointment rate has been reached, and we unanimously recommended that the Session plan to hold indoor worship services as soon as the staff members needed to do so had been vaccinated and achieved immunity. The Session voted to unanimously to approve this recommendation.

Therefore, we are delighted to announce that on Sunday, June 20, we will begin holding worship services indoors in addition to the digital livestream, and you will be welcome to attend the 9 a.m. Contemporary Worship Service in the Kirk Center and/or the 11 a.m. Traditional Worship Service in the Sanctuary!

Our recommendation, which the Session has approved, also stipulates that properly-worn face masks will continue to be required at all times inside the church buildings until further notice.

However, as we prepared to release this message yesterday, PA Dept. of Health Secretary Alison Beam said that Pennsylvania is on track to have 70% of adults fully vaccinated by the end of June, and that the state will remove its mask mandate when we reach that threshold or by June 28, whichever comes first.

The Task Force needs some time to consider what, if any, changes we may want to recommend to the Session’s current policy that masks will continue to be required for all people at all times inside the church buildings until further notice.

Of particular concern is the ongoing reality that religious services are one of the highest-risk activities for unvaccinated people, and there is no approved vaccine for children under 12 years old. Once the Task Force has had an opportunity to evaluate these questions, it will report its recommendations to the Session and we will update the congregation once the Session has received and acted upon that report. This will happen as quickly as possible and you can expect an update in advance of the June 20 services.

In any case, however, we will be encouraging people to minimize physical contact in worship for now, and modifying some worship practices accordingly. Informal spacing between households in worship will be welcome.

We are discouraging things like handshakes and hugs outside of your social bubble/pod for now, so elbow bumps or gestures will continue to be the practice during the Passing of the Peace, greeting at the door, etc.

For the Traditional Service, we will have offering plates by the door in which financial gifts can be dropped rather than passing offering plates (this was already the practice at the Contemporary Service); the Worship Committee will recommend how best to offer the sacrament of Communion, but has not yet made a determination (the first indoor Communion service is currently scheduled for July 4). We will be doing congregational and choral singing indoors, but again, the current policy is that this will be done with masks on until further notice.

In our April letter, we explained the changes in the use of the church facilities by small groups; no further specific changes have been made since then. The church staff continues to work remotely for the most part, as their responsibilities allow, but Pastor Austin, as Head of Staff, is currently leading them through an internal review and recommendation process for future changes that will be considered by the Personnel Committee and then ultimately recommended to Session for discussion and approval. There will be further updates as that process unfolds.

Like so many of you, we have longed for the day on which we could make a faithful and responsible recommendation to the Session to begin indoor worship once more, and we are beyond grateful that day is now here. We are moved by the resilience and support of the congregation as we have journeyed through these 14+ months of the pandemic together.

If you have particular questions or concerns about this decision or any of the protocols that are in place (or those that have been dropped), please send an email to info@fpc-bethlehem.org or leave a message on the church office phone.

Finally, we ask your continuing prayers for our congregation, our community, and our world as we continue to respond to it, and we strongly urge you to get vaccinated if you have not already, and to encourage all those in your family and social circles to do so, as well.

We look forward to seeing you in person during worship on June 20!!!

Yours in Christ,

The FPCB Building Reopening Task Force

·        Belle Marks, chair
·        Elizabeth Conard
·        Sue Farber
·        Bob Hunsicker
·        Rich Hjorth
·        J.C. Austin, staff
·        Rebecca Angione, staff