Last Wednesday, I went to Costco for my usual fortnightly visit, arriving early to avoid the crowds. Or at least, I thought I was. The place was crowded and people were loading carts with what looked like a year’s supply of toilet paper, rice and other staples.
Over the weekend, it was even worse and when I went this week the shelves were bare. Seattle has become like a wasteland as people panic, bulk buy and hoard as much as they can as though they expect to be under siege for a year or more.
Coronavirus, or COVID-19 as it is now officially known, is a serious threat to the stability of our communities, but it grieves me to see the panic that has gripped so many in our neighbourhoods as the virus spreads. My concern is that many Christians have responded with the same fear and panic when I think that we should be responding in a very different spirit.
Don’t Panic – Prepare
“The Lord alone is our radiant hope and we trust in him with all our hearts.
His wrap-around presence will strengthen us.” (Psalm 33:20 TPT)
Do not yield to fear, for I am always near. Never turn your gaze from me, for I am your faithful God. I will infuse you with my strength and help you in every situation. (Isaiah 41:10)
As people of faith we need to start by reminding ourselves each day that our trust is in God alone not in how much food we have on hand or even in how little contact we have with people around us who may be infected. Sitting quietly, taking some deep breaths in and out and then reciting one of the verses above in the morning and then repeating it several times a day is a good place to start.
Having said all that, I know that we do need to be prepared for the possibility that people will be asked to stay home. Schools here in Seattle (where the most deaths in the U.S. have occurred so far) are already closing, some for a day to disinfect all surfaces, others indefinitely. Some major venues have been cancelled and older people are being encouraged to stay home. So, what should we do and how do we prepare our congregations for the next few months?
There is lots of good and bad suggestions out at the moment. I like this very balanced article on npr.org so I won’t harp on those but there are things we can do to help our congregations respond out of love not fear.
Prepare Your Church
- If you are sick, stay home.
- Be outspoken about changes in church policies for greeting and exchanging the peace. No touching is the new policy. A bow, a wave or a loving look rather than a handshake or hug are recommended. Have hand sanitizer around the church for people to use both before and after this practice.
- What about communion? We use a common cup and interestingly the very few studies that have been done show no difference in infection rates of those who take communion from a common cup to those in the general population. There has never been a case of a virus spread by use of common cup however many churches, including ours, have stopped this practice and only distribute bread for communion. If this is the case presiders should use hand sanitizer before they start distributing bread and only they should touch it. Hand washing should also be done before distributing individual cups.
- Passing offering plates where people touch the plate is not recommended either. Best option is to have the plate in a conspicuous position that people can place money in.
- Child-care is a huge benefit for many churches with younger congregations and though no mandatory shutdowns for childcare and Sunday school have been given, you may want to suspend these for a few weeks until the situation is under control.
- The life of a church often revolves around a common meal. If this is done in small groups where numbers are limited and participants are encouraged to be careful to wash their hands repeatedly in the preparation of the food, then this is probably OK. Large common meal gatherings are not recommended at this time.
Prepare to Be God’s Presence in Your Church and Community.
God’s people are meant to be people for others, not for themselves, so I think that one of the major discussions needs to be, “How can we help the vulnerable people in our churches and communities prepare and cope with this crisis?”
When businesses close, poor employees suffer most because they do not have savings they can live off. They can’t afford to buy extra supplies either because they live week to week out of their pay check. And they can’t afford to take time off because usually their place of work does not pay them for sick days. Some of them lose their jobs and their homes and end up living in their cars.
Here are my suggestions on initial questions church leaders need to be asking:
- Who are the vulnerable people in your church who may lose jobs and housing as a result of this crisis? Are their people in your congregation that could provide temporary housing for some of these vulnerable people. This is something we have often practiced and we have made some wonderful new friends in the process
- If you put together emergency supplies for yourself, who else should you be doing this for? Perhaps your church could start a food bank or a special fund for those who cannot afford to buy emergency supplies. Maybe it is a good time to encourage everyone to tithe from what they have accumulated so that everyone has something to see them through.
- Who are the vulnerable people in your community that could need help if they get sick, maybe with meals, a lift to the doctor or help with medications and shopping? How will they contact you? And who could you contact to help them?
One thing that has challenged me as I read about the history of Christianity is how often more people of strong Christian faith died in epidemics because they were the ones looking after the sick. Are we willing to be Christ’s hands and feet during a time of crisis like this? Are we willing to put our own lives at risk for those who are the most vulnerable in our communities?
A Prayer for the Day
God of life and love, help us to be your people in times of crisis. May we respond out of love and not fear, out of trust and not panic. Help us to be sensitive to those who are vulnerable, to those who are afraid and to those who are confused. Amen.
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