Written by Janae Bradshaw and Gabriel Huff, with contributions from Everett Kirkman and Caroline Birdwell
All Harding students and faculty gathered for the first combined chapel since 2013 on Aug. 23 in the Benson Auditorium.
“There has been an incredible energy inside the Benson Auditorium everyday for chapel so far,” Student Association (SA) president Ethan Brazell, a chapel committee member, said. “Anytime someone’s made an announcement, it’s been met with an audience reaction. Anytime I’ve had the opportunity to speak up on stage, there’s been a lot of interaction and attention from everyone in the Benson.”
Since the student body had shrunk enough to fit most students into the auditorium, there were plans in place to shift to one chapel time at the start of the 2020 school year, but the spread of COVID-19 delayed those plans.
Some students were excited to be back together with the whole student body. Junior Abbey Masters, SA secretary and member of the chapel committee, said she was glad to be back in the Benson, worshipping alongside her friends.
“The joy and energy was palpable,” Masters said. “I felt it, and I knew my friends did too, in fact I looked over at my chapel buddy Abby Foust and there were tears of joy in her eyes. I was reminded of how special it is to gather together. It’s something I won’t take for granted anymore for sure.”
Brazell said many people are tuned into chapel.
“There’s been a lot of people really, really invested in what’s going on, and I think that’s for two reasons: For one, the high quality speakers, presentations and programs this year; and also, kind of this uplifting energy of everyone being together, and I think everyone feels that,” Brazell said.
However, chapel has not returned completely to normal. Having over 2000 people in the same space amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic without any distancing or mask requirements has left some students concerned. Students were given an option to choose a chapel seat in a socially distanced section where masks would be worn.
Junior Ellieze Hood was one of the students who chose to sit in this area.
“I think it’s really irresponsible for the heads of the University to gather all students in one place everyday and not require masks, proof of vaccination, a negative [COVID-19] test or even a temperature reading,” Hood said.
According to the COVID-19 information on the Harding website on Sept.1, there were 28 positive cases with 53 people in quarantine, which does not include those who are vaccinated but are close contacts. Fifteen people have recovered from COVID-19 since Aug. 23.
Sophomore Allie Nesbitt does not sit in the masked section but chooses to wear a mask in chapel.
“It is honestly a little surprising to look around and see everyone so close together without masks,” Nesbitt said. “I am definitely not trying to control what other people choose to do, but I personally feel better about wearing a mask, especially in chapel.”
Junior Bo Webb was happy everyone could be back together again without having to wear masks.
“It feels really good to be able to start heading back to normalcy, and I’m personally am just very glad that we are able to worship without masks on so that we’re able to actually hear each others’ voices, ‘cause I remember last year when we’d stand up and we’re all spread out — it was almost like we couldn’t even hear each other,” Webb said.
Brazell said he wants a standard of excellence for chapel.
“[We are] making sure that there’s a variety of different types of programs that happen in chapel,” Brazell said. “For example, we are trying to bring someone in from the community once a week to be able to talk about something that’s going on in our local community — here in Searcy and in White County. We’re trying to have a student-led chapel once a week … So, we’re trying to break up some of the monotony by having a variety of different types of speakers, and keeping it fresh for chapel. Since it is everyday, we just want to keep it fresh.”