By Rylie Friesen–
The coronavirus pandemic and smoke-filled skies from California’s wildfires have made traditional in-person gatherings a challenge for many churches, but with smoke clearing in recent days one large church in Citrus Heights has resumed offering outdoor services.
Heights Church, formerly known as Bayside Church of Citrus Heights, initially launched its outdoor Wednesday evening services in August, but the air quality quickly became too risky due to smoke from California’s wildfires.
With skies clearing, however, more than 50 people attended a Sept. 23 outdoor service, led by Associate Pastor John Treherne, who spoke of growing even during difficult times, like COVID-19.
Located at 6540 Sylvan Rd., Heights Church sizes around 3,000 congregants and has been holding three online church services each Sunday, where lead pastor Craig Sweeney has been teaching a series titled “Thriving in COVID.” The church decided to additionally offer in-person services on Wednesday evenings for those who wanted to meet in person.
“We knew there were several people within our congregation that wanted to gather,” Cheryl Bangs, executive pastor of Heights Church, told The Sentinel. “So we said, what can we do that is safe, and how can we do it following the protocols and guides.”
“Not everyone comes because not everyone is comfortable, but we wanted to give that opportunity for those who were,” she said.
Congregant Lesa Johnson said she travels 30 minutes to be able to attend the service in person.
“This is my church family,” Johnson said. “There is a great opportunity to be connected, and to grow as a church even in these hard times.
Couple Sam and Debbe Morrow have been going to Heights Church for over 30 years, and spoke of the need to be with one another.
“We could sit in our living room and sing the songs with the band that’s on the screen, and listen to the message and get things out of it,” Sam said. “But just to be able to have physical connection; to be able to sit near somebody that you know. We’ve known a lot of these people a long time. That’s the main thing for me.”
Debbe agreed: “It’s just heartbreaking not to be here. Just the joy of getting to see one another again.”
The church is constantly watching CDC guides to stay on top of protocol. Masks are required until people are socially distant, as a way to look out for those with health risks.
“As a Christian, there is an importance of gathering together and being with other people to worship,” said Bangs. “This was one way that the CDC allowed, so we said, let’s jump on that.”
A children’s area was also hosted adjacent to the outdoor service, where kids could play games, run around, and hear a Bible story while being near their parents and social distancing.
Heights Church is also partnered with Sunrise Christian Food Ministry in Citrus Heights. The church collects food and congregation members also volunteer at the food closet.
Bangs also said the church has a ministry to the homeless, feeding around 600 homeless a week and supplying them with “Bags of Hope,” filled with necessities like toothbrushes, toothpaste, and water.
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Churches in Citrus Heights have adapted in various ways during the coronavirus pandemic. Following shutdown orders in March, many churches cancelled services, went online, or hosted outdoor or drive-in services.
Bangs said Heights Church intended to go online before shelter-in-place orders were set in motion, but COVID pushed the church into it.
“We didn’t have any options, so we had to just hit the ground running. It’s been fabulous,” said Bangs. She said the church plans to continue its online services after indoor services resume, as a way to reach a wider audience.