Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Church of the Future Pt 2

Dear Friends,

If you were a virus terrorist, what would be the most ideal way to spread COVID-19? The most effective way to spread any virus is in the place that we call “church.” Members and visitors of all ages crowd inside a building that is often filled to its capacity. We love to sit next to friends, shake hands and hug. It’s different for other cultures, but for White Americans, the comfortable distance when speaking to one another is about five to eight feet; however, in church the comfortable distance is less than three feet. We love to sing out and shower our friends, who are sitting several rows ahead of us, with droplets from our mouth and lungs. We hold hands when we pray. We pass the offering plate and share all of the organic matter on our hands with our friends. A pastor or priest tears off a piece of bread with unwashed hands and places it in our own unclean hand. We crowd our way out the door to have after-service “snacks” and in some cases a lunch prepared and served by people who may be sick but who are not yet showing symptoms. At a Washington church, 60 people showed up for choir practice. It was a large multipurpose room and chairs were spaced six feet apart. They used hand-sanitizer. Didn’t shake hands. No one had symptoms or felt ill. Three weeks later, 45 had been diagnosed with COVID-19, three were still hospitalized and two were dead. That was when health officials realized how much farther the virus droplets can travel when you’re singing.

There are some churches in our Country insistent on opening their doors, but our public health officials are saying that we are not ready and when we are, the services should look nothing like they did before. That’s because, outside of residential care facilities, the largest gathering of those most vulnerable to this virus, are in our churches. The Episcopal church has nearly 70% of its membership over age 55. In the ELCA (Lutheran) church, 61% of their members are older than age 55 and one-third are older than age 65. The Presbyterian church is even grayer with a whopping 40% who are older than age 65.

It’s not just age that makes us vulnerable. As of today (4/27) in LA County, 942 have died from COVID-19 and 92% of those have had underlying medical conditions. A younger church congregation does not make it a safer one. In fact, a recent LA Times analysis has shown that Latinos aged 18 to 49 have a higher coronavirus fatality rate than older Latinos. Of those in LA County who have tested positive for the virus, 84% are younger than 65 and nearly half are younger than 40. What makes COVID-19 difficult to control is that, according to the latest testing, about 50% of those testing positive, and who can infect others, have had no symptoms. That’s why for the foreseeable future, our church can no longer look like the church I’ve described at the beginning of this AMEN Corner.

Health officials tell us it’s not safe for us to gather in church or in any crowded places until we can be vaccinated against this virus and that a vaccine is 12-18 months away. But could we open churches earlier if strict guidelines were enforced? Perhaps. But according to health officials and denominational leaders, strict rules would need to be in place and those who refuse to follow them would no longer be admitted to the services. Only one person at a time in a restroom which would have to be disinfected after each person used it. No lingering or social interaction before or after the service would be allowed. Offering plates are on a table at the door. You drop in your check or envelope without touching the plate. Singing out loud is no longer permitted since it has now been proven that singing can force droplets through homemade cloth masks. During communion, the person holds their hand flat. The pastor wearing a medical glove removes a machine-made communion wafer from its plastic wrapper and drops the wafer into the person’s hand. If his fingers accidentally touch the person’s hand, the service stops while he changes gloves. Another communion server, also wearing gloves, steps forward and places a filled plastic cup on a table. The server steps back and the congregant steps forward to pick up the cup, drinks it and drops it into a plastic-lined trash can. (I cannot tell you how much I hate the thought of having to distribute communion this way but the only other option is to hand out the sterile prepackaged communion “kits” as shown in the photo above) Church leaders say these are some of the logistical nightmares that each church will have to work through before they can once again have in-person services. And yet even when it is permitted by the government to allow public gatherings, we may not want to be the first ones to do so in order to protect those – both young and old – who are the vulnerable ones in our congregation. 

The first and primary job of the shepherd is to look after and protect his or her sheep and our English word “pastor” is derived from the Latin word meaning “shepherd.” And if we are a mainline pastor, about 50% or more of our flock is older and/or medically vulnerable. Older churchgoers are the most anxious to return to church since their generation often suffers from social isolation and loneliness and they are also the ones less likely to watch an online service. Many churches are finding that the older ones are demanding churches be reopened while the younger generations urge caution and believe that closures need to remain in place. 

When your church does open, how do you know that  the necessary precautions are in place and it’s safe for you to return? A parachurch church organization has released guidelines that churches are using in preparing their own. Consider these guidelines and use them as a checklist to evaluate your own church’s procedures. It is difficult to think of our church this way, but during these challenging times, you need to make sure that you are kept safe from others and others safe from you.

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