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In battle of germs, Jesus wins

Churches are taking common sense precautions to stop the spread of flu while still participating in the sacraments. Worshippers at the 2006 United Methodist Women’s Assembly share communion in the photo above. A UMNS file photo by Paul Jeffrey.

By Kathy L. Gilbert*
Oct. 20, 2009 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

Be not afraid. Jesus is more powerful than germs.

That’s the advice from The United Methodist Church’s agency charged with providing leadership and resources to local churches in the face of the country’s concern over the H1N1 flu virus.

“Do celebrate worship and the sacraments fully and be not afraid,” said Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship. “Use common sense, but remember this: Jesus is more powerful than germs!”

United Methodist churches across the country are not letting the threat of H1N1,or “swine flu,” shut their doors. They are in some cases arming themselves with bottles of sanitizers, doing hand waves instead of handshakes and celebrating Holy Communion with a little more caution than usual.

But the liturgy goes on.

North Scottsdale (Ariz.) United Methodist Church put it this way: “Certainly the conclusion we come to should not be that being together is dangerous or that communion should be suspended. The conclusion should be that God calls us together to be the body of Christ around word and table and that we can do so with confidence that we will taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”

Safe communion

The Board of Discipleship’s Web site offers a list of dos and don’ts to combat spreading the flu in church. The most important message is to show reasonable concern, but not to confuse “appropriate concern for over-reactive panic. Rejoice and fear not!”

Precautions on the list include making hand sanitizer available for all worshippers and having people wash their hands before touching food that will be shared. If the flu is spreading in the congregation’s area, the agency suggests exchanging the peace and greeting others in ways that do not require skin-to-skin contact.

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The official United Methodist ritual is to receive the bread rather than taking it from servers who have washed their hands, Burton-Edwards said. If using intinction, let the server who breaks the bread also dip the bread in the cup. “This reduces the number of touches during serving and entirely eliminates the need for those receiving to place their bread, and perhaps their fingers, into the cup.

“Keep in mind that clinical studies have shown that communion itself poses very low risk for spreading disease,” he said.

University United Methodist Church in San Antonio, Texas, has been taking extra precautions since last spring when news about H1N1 first surfaced. Encouraging the use of hand sanitizers and thoroughly cleaning up all surfaces such as doorknobs and light switches has become part of the church’s “psyche” said Shauna Forkenbrock, director of communication.

Worshippers can opt for pre-packaged elements during Holy Communion, she said. “A lot of people are doing that--better to be safe than sorry.”

Louisiana Bishop William W. Hutchinson said lay and clergy serving communion should “visibly” clean their hands. He said hand washing could be incorporated during the act of confession as a liturgical act. 

Bernardsville (N.J.) United Methodist Church is serving communion with individual cups and pre-sliced bread and puts tissues in the pews.

Peace of mind

The Rev. Vic Nixon, senior pastor of Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Ark., assured worshippers on a recent Sunday that they could forgo physical contact when they pass the peace.

The Arkansas Conference is offering United Methodist hand sanitizers to keep members healthy during the
flu season. A UMNS photo by Patrick W. Shownes.

“[I told them] You don’t actually have to shake hands or touch each other,” Nixon said. “And I told them we have hand sanitizers throughout the building.”

The primary ways the virus spreads is by airborne particles from coughs or sneezes and by skin-to-skin contact with someone who is infected, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The center reports that influenza activity is widespread in 41 states. Flu-related hospitalizations and deaths are also higher than expected for this time of year.

Church leaders can play an important role in promoting awareness, said Chaplain John Wilcher, the director of clergy and conference ministries at Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare in Memphis. He hopes pastors will stress the need for people to get shots for both the seasonal flu and H1N1.

Show Christian love

In the midst of all the precautions, the United Methodist West Ohio Annual (regional) Conference reminds members they are the “hands and feet of Christ and difficult times provide us the opportunity to brightly shine our light of Christian love and caring.”

The conference encouraged churches to consider ways to support low-income workers in their community who are sick and staying home from work. “Many workers risk losing their wages or don’t have adequate medical insurance.”

However, anyone feeling ill should stay home, according to the Web site. “Not exposing others may be your greatest act of love today.”

Clergy are encouraging their flocks to wash their hands often and are keeping ample supplies of hand sanitizers in restrooms, at all entrances and even at some communion rails.

The Rev. Chris Cooper, Cornerstone United Methodist Church, Jonesboro, Ark., who recently had some family members sick with the flu, passes a bottle of hand sanitizer around to communion servers.

Mixing a little advice with humor, he said, “Take this in remembrance of your neighbor.”

*Gilbert is a news writer for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn. Information for this report came from United Methodist conference and Board of Discipleship web sites.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Related Articles

Swine Flu 2009- A faith based response

Churches take healthy interest in fighting the spread of H1N1

H1N1, Worship and Holy Communion

Compassion, caution urged in response to swine flu 


United Methodist Board of Discipleship: H1N1 Virus

United Methodist Committee on Relief

H1N1 Flu: A Guide For Community and Faith-Based Organizations

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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