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Testing requirements to enter Canada limit worship options in border towns

“We’re all one body in Christ, no matter what church you’re going to, but at the same time, if you’ve been going to a church for a long time, you build those relationships there,” Walhalla pastor says.

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PEMBINA, N.D. — For Marian and Abe Penner of Emerson, Manitoba, border closures and testing requirements at the U.S.-Canada border meant months without what Marian considers an essential service: church.

“Being a part of a congregation isn’t just the service, it’s the relationships that you have,” said Marian. “They’re like your family, it’s not like a social club. It’s deeper. The relationship in a church is deeper.”

The couple attend Pembina Evangelical Free Church in Pembina, North Dakota, a community of approximately 500 people two miles south of the U.S.-Canada border. But since the pandemic began, the Penners have only been reunited with the congregation twice — when a testing requirement to re-enter Canada was relaxed at the end of November. Now, they are not sure when they'll be able to come back.

The U.S. border opened to travel from Canada on Nov. 8, although Canada's government required that anybody entering Canada had to provide proof of a negative molecular COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours.

On Nov. 30, Canada’s government lifted the test requirement for fully vaccinated people who leave and re-enter the country within a 72-hour period. On Dec. 21, testing requirements for returning citizens were reinstated because of the spread of the omicron variant.

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For those crossing the border for short amounts of time — churchgoers, for instance — it has been a notable burden.

“Unless you’re wealthy, you can’t afford a $100 test every Sunday to be able to go to church,” said Jeff Bridell, pastor at the Pembina Evangelical Free Church.

During the three-week period when testing requirements were more lax, Marian said returning to the church was fantastic.

“We got our first hugs in two years and got a wonderful welcome,” said Penner.

But she wishes she and her husband had taken better advantage of the reprieve.

“We were invited out to lunch with some folks and we said ‘well, we’ll do it next Sunday,’” said Marian. “Well, next Sunday never came.”

The testing requirements in place now are too restrictive and complicated for short trips, said Marian.

“You have to do that test and everything and you don’t know if you’ll get back home, so you don’t go,” she said.

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In Walhalla — another northern North Dakota community near the border — Assembly of God Church also has congregation members who come from Canada but have been unable to attend services. Pastor David Clason says the biggest pandemic change within his congregation has been new families. His congregation has seen a few new faces in the last two years because some people in the U.S. have not been able to make it to their normal church in Canada.

“We’re all one body in Christ, no matter what church you’re going to, but at the same time, if you’ve been going to a church for a long time, you build those relationships there,” said Clason.

Once travel between Canada and the U.S. is unrestricted by vaccinations or testing, Clason expects most of those families to return to the churches they attended pre-pandemic.

“We will probably end up losing a couple of those families, but for us it was a blessing to have them while we did and I know they’ll be blessed being able to go back to where they’re comfortable worshiping,” he said.

Both the Pembina Evangelical Free Church and Assembly of God have live-streamed services during the pandemic. Assembly of God livestreamed on Facebook before the pandemic started, and the Pembina Evangelical Free Church introduced livestreaming after Bridell started at the church in August 2020.

Bridell says online worship does not hold the same weight as in-person services.

“It’s better than absolutely nothing,” he said. “A live-stream cannot replace coming together as the family of Christ to be with people.”

Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or iharbo@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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