Shuttered for months, Kotzebue churches slowly reopen to parishioners

Kotzebue Church of God Pastor Andy Terry delivers his first Sunday sermon in months. (Wesley Early/KOTZ)

The city of Kotzebue recently lifted its mandatory COVID-19 closure order for churches. The city had enacted an emergency order in late March to close them to the public, as well as restaurants, entertainment and recreation facilities. 

Any church wishing to reopen to the public had to submit a plan to the city showing how they would operate and maintain social distancing guidelines.

Walking into the Kotzebue Church of God for the first time in months, parishioners were in for some changes. 

“If you’ve noticed, I’ve taken out a row of seats and spaced the seats out a little bit,” pastor Andy Terry told parishioners. “We do have face coverings back there if you want one. There’s hand sanitizer all over.”

Adapting to changes is nothing new for Terry, who arrived in Kotzebue from his previous Tennessee church in January. 

“It was about negative 50, negative 60 (degrees) windchill when I got here. All the pipes in the church were frozen,” Terry said. “I got here and we got to work.”

He said he traded many of his clerical duties for more hands-on work, like plumbing. The church had been without a pastor for about a year-and-a-half, leaving a lot of work unattended to. From February to March, Terry began slowly working to re-establish a presence for the church in Kotzebue. And parishioners started showing up. 

“Things were going great,” Terry said. “Our Wednesday night and Sundays, we were running in the mid-20s, which is pretty good for a town this size. Then COVID-19 jerked the rug from under us.”

Like many churches across the state, the Kotzebue Church of God has been shuttered since March. Reopening churches meant walking a fine line between allowing people to return to their normal activities and keeping them safe. Terry was one of several pastors who called into a city council meeting in mid-June asking for the chance to reopen responsibly. 

“I genuinely feel like they had our best interest at heart,” Terry said. “Why would I fight that? But as I mentioned in the city council meeting, three months later, I had time to educate myself.”

Seating at Kotzebue Church of God has been spaced out to comply with COVID-19 health regulations. (Photo by Wesley Early, KOTZ – Kotzebue)

In order to reopen, Terry had to make sure that face masks, hand sanitizer and spaced out seating was available to followers. Though most health mandates say you need to be six feet apart to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it’s bumped up to ten feet in places where there will be singing, which Terry complied with. While nothing is mandatory, during his first Sunday service in months, Terry asked his audience to be respectful of how others choose to go to church.

“I can’t wear one, because if I did I’d sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher, so I don’t have one,” Terry said. “If you don’t choose to wear one, we’re not going to force you to come to church and wear a face mask. I feel like our seating is adequate enough to provide some space, so that is totally up to you. I just don’t want anyone who chooses to come in with one to be made to feel uncomfortable.”

Aside from access to personal salvation, one of the biggest impacts to churches has been financial. Terry says his church is part of a wider network of churches statewide, so they were able to get a bit of help. Additionally, he says the church’s dedicated followers made the effort to pay their tithings. 

“One of the ladies that was here this morning would call me up and say ‘I’m leaving my house now, and I’m walking’ — this is back when it was 30 below outside — ‘I’m walking to the church now to bring my tithe.’ And we weren’t even having church then,” Terry said.

However, COVID-19 has affected everyone in Kotzebue, and Terry says other churchgoers in town weren’t as lucky. 

“You’ve got people here in Kotzebue who are working in the hotel industry or working in the restaurant business. They might have hit hard times,” Terry said. “That’s going to impact the church. I’ve been fortunate. A lot of people that we have in this church are school teachers, so their salary has continued. They’ve been able to continue to support the church. So that makes a big difference.”

Kotzebue Church of God. (Photo by Wesley Early, KOTZ – Kotzebue)

Terry acknowledged another group of followers that his church gained in the pandemic. Like many pastors across the country, he began to move online. He would pre-record a sermon and upload it to Facebook for his parishioners. However, he began to notice that parishioners from other states and even other countries began to both tune in, and offer gifts and tithings.  

Moving forward, Terry says that he’s going to keep broadcasting sermons over social media. He says for better or worse, COVID-19 has opened his eyes to how to reach people. 

“You could have two people in your service and reach somebody 5,000 miles away. It’s eye-opening,” Terry said. “I think a lot of pastors, they never really thought about that. They thought about their calling being to the people under the roof of their church, but that’s not who our calling is. Our calling is to reach whomever.”

There were about ten people in the church pews for his sermon on Sunday. Terry says a similar number came in for their first Wednesday night service. He’s hopeful that moving forward, he’ll be able to continue to bring the gospel to his audience, both in the pews and on the web.