By Carol Elizabeth Owens
The faith community has to balance public health concerns with keeping active ministries now that Monroe County has a confirmed case of coronavirus.
“In the church, part of our culture is people love to hug, shake hands and kiss each other,” said the Rev. Dr. Jonathan J. McReynolds, pastor of Aenon Missionary Baptist Church. “Common sense and good practices, right now with the coronavirus maybe we don’t need everyone touching their neighbor and kissing and hugging people in church on Sunday.”
“As much as we love to touch each other, we will probably say, ‘Keep your hands to yourself.’ If you have to sneeze or cough we will ask people during service to find a secluded place for anything of that matter,” said the Rev. Dr. Rickey B. Harvey, pastor of Mount Olivet Baptist Church. “We will ask people to be cautious and even eliminate the hand shaking that we normally do, the embracing that we normally do.”
The confirmed case of COVID-19 is in a Rochester man who appeared to contract the virus while in Italy. Dr. Michael Mendoza, commissioner of the Monroe County Department of Public Health, said that right now the risk of community spread is low.
To try to minimize that risk, Mendoza suggested during a March 12 news conference that people limit gatherings to groups of 50 or fewer. Even in small groups, the recommendation is to social distancing – giving people space and not shaking hands or other touching.
On March 13, the health department issued guidelines for faith communities that included cleaning and then disinfecting high-touch surfaces such as hymnals, chairs, handrails and door handles.
The health department also had recommendations for Holy Communion or the Eucharist, such as not sharing common vessels and refraining from dipping the bread in the wine, which could transmit infection.
As for Muslim practices, the health department said that areas for wudu (ablution) have sufficient soap and paper towels or hand sanitizer.
However issues related to addressing COVID-19 among church leaders and their congregations extend beyond the practice of social distancing.
“In any crisis we face, from a faith perspective we always keep our faith in God,” McReynolds said. “From a Biblical perspective, going back to the beginning of time of man you’ve had health crises, you’ve had economic crises and God has always brought us through all of those throughout the ages of humanity. So I think we have to have a combination of faith and common sense to navigate this.”
The Rev. Dr. Sandra DeMott Hasenauer, executive minister of the American Baptist Churches in the Rochester-Genesee Region, said there is a need to “preserve a sense of community of faithful gathered in God’s name while still attending to people’s health. … We need to balance our concern about people’s health with the fact that we are meant to be in community.”
To achieve that balance, Aenon may explore holding two services with an abbreviated worship schedule each Sunday, with half of their normal 100 congregants attending each service. The church also will consider broader use of technology to reach the congregation.
“Our church is blessed, we have online giving; we have live-stream technology. So if push comes to shove, I’ll just give a Bible lesson from my home and send it out over the airwaves and people could give,” said McReynolds.
Mount Olivet Baptist Church has no immediate plan to limit the number of congregants at a worship service.
Harvey said he expected about 200 to come to worship on March 15. “We just want to take all precautionary measures that we know and all that we are advised to do… I guess it’s fortunate or unfortunate that we will be more than 50 people in attendance.”
Harvey and McReynolds said they will look very closely at the guidance, recommendations and requirements of health department officials, other medical experts and government leaders as they navigate the COVID-19 situation, which continues to evolve.
“I do think we need to be smart, wise and strategic in what we’re doing to comply with health concerns and good practices during this time,” McReynolds said.
“I won’t, nor will I encourage my people, to live in fear – you know, to wrap up like mummies and to stay away from society,” Harvey said. “But I will also say that where fear comes in, faith goes out.”
“ … Sometimes we need to turn the TV off, wash our hands, practice the same measures today that we should always be practicing – be clean, be safe and be as harmless to others as you possibly can,” he said.