PHOENIX — For decades, First Institutional Baptist Church in downtown Phoenix has been home for both Pastor Warren Stewart Sr. and his wife Karen Stewart.
Then in March, for the first time ever, COVID-19 forced them to close the doors.
“To think of not coming to your house of worship for months, is unfathomable,” said Dr. Stewart as he reflected on how devastating the change was for parishioners. Some haven’t missed a Sunday in 50 years, but the closure was necessary as many of their regulars are seniors who are at a higher risk of getting sick.
Then in August came another blow. One after another, the husband and wife ministry team both contracted coronavirus.
“It was shocking, I don’t know if we’ve ever been sick at the same time,” said Dr. Stewart.
He says it was three days of agony for him, including body aches, cough, digestive trouble and fatigue. Karen endured the worst of it as the virus knocked her down for 11 days, spending most confined to bed. At one point, she did need a trip to urgent care and the lingering effects of fatigue and dizziness kept her out of the office for a month.
“I just remember waking up in the middle of the night thinking, I just need to be able to take a deep breath and I couldn't, but I could breathe,” remembers Karen.
It was challenging and scary and now that they’ve both recovered, they are rejoicing and looking ahead to reopening the church for the first time in nearly seven months.
“We left that demon of COVID-19 in August. We did not bring it into September,” said the pastor.
The church lobby is now dotted with strips of blue tape every six feet leading into the sanctuary with several hand-sanitizing stations along the way. Inside the sanctuary, the tape also marks every other pew and is spaced out to demonstrate how to social distance while parishioners are inside.
You have to reserve a seat ahead of time online for each person in your party and it will be limited -- there’s room for 125 people at the 7:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. services. Everyone will be escorted in and out of the sanctuary and lingering in the lobby after service will be prohibited. Masks will also be required.
“We reassure them, ‘If you’re not ready to come back, that’s okay, you watch online, you call in, when you are ready, we’ll be here for you.' But there are people who are ready,” said Dr. Stewart.
Weekly bible study and other church activities will remain virtual and the Sunday services will still stream online. The church doesn’t expect to expand capacity until sometime in 2021 when a vaccine is widely available.