The current threat of the spread of the Coronavirus is one of which we are all keenly aware. We both lend our support and pray for our friends and partners overseas and, now, look to each other in the U.S. for guidance and safe practices. In moments like these I find that it is important to take a moment to evaluate the situation and understand the appropriate level of concern and response.
In a place such as church, where we uphold and thrive on togetherness and caring unions, we must not let the crippling fear that has gained momentum around this illness isolate us from one another. Rather, we would do better to learn from the secretary and Acting Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Malaysia (LCM,) The Rev. Thomas Low, and exercise caution and encourage faith together. In the very epicenter of this current crisis, he wisely makes the following invitation to all: “Let us be witnesses of hope, encouragement, generosity, patience and prayer.” Rather than being controlled by fear and allowing alarmist attitudes to dictate our everyday lives, we must be a beacon of hope and thoughtful composure for our siblings and our world. The Rev. Low strongly speaks out against following and spreading unconfirmed and sensational information in his pastoral letter, explaining that this behavior adds to an “atmosphere of fear, tinged with a sense of panic.” I too urge my faithful friends to steer clear of this panicked conduct, for by staying informed, communicating with one another and with the leaders in our Lutheran communities, and exercising reasonable caution if necessary, we will be more discerning and better able to aid both ourselves and those around us.
Does the threat of this virus mean you should stay away from church? I would like to say an unequivocal “No,” but that would not be true or responsible. In fact, if you are sick or are vulnerable due to age (young or old) or existing medical conditions, you should be extra cautious about being around other sick people, whether they have the coronavirus, the flu or other contagious illnesses. As a good overview of appropriate precautions which also serves as guidelines and an antidote to panic, I found this article in the New York Times especially helpful.
Please pay particular attention to these tips as they relate to practices in your congregation, such as sharing the peace and distribution of Holy Communion. Pass the peace and then pass the hand sanitizer. Those distributing should sanitize their hands before doing so. And remember, according to our Lutheran understanding, if you prefer to receive only the bread of Holy Communion, you still receive the full benefit of the sacrament.
We are all stronger and better equipped to face challenges of every degree as a calm, collected, and aware church community. Each of us, along with our holy siblings, can remain safe by acting collectively and responsibly. With the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we may be the shining example of hope and courage.
Bishop Paul Egensteiner
Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America