Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Churches Respond to Swine Flu with Faith and Formalin

The initial furor over the Swine Flu outbreak has diminished in recent weeks, but not everyone is pleased. “We can use a little panic now and again to keep us on our toes,” says John Svenson, pastor of Jamestown Lutheran Church in Hillsboro, Oregon. “We need to remain vigilant. ‘Keep awake!’ as Jesus said. Who knows when the next pandemic will hit?”

Even as the flood of news reports coming out of Mexico was still a trickle, Svenson and his flock were planning their strategy. The church’s Committee on Health and Wellness began monitoring CNN 24-hours a day and studying the spread of the virus via the Internet. The group soon had a few simple guidelines to help parishioners protect themselves.

Pastor John Svenson serves Holy Communion
to parishioners at Jamestown Lutheran.

The list included the usual suggestions such as “wash your hands frequently” and “cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze,” but also more intensive steps such as “purchase a hazmat suit” and “build an airtight underground shelter in your back yard.” The committee added some new procedures for all church gatherings, including worship.

Committee chairperson Jean Hawkins sent out a mass e-mail and church wide mailing explaining the new rules. “People didn’t respond too well at first,” said Hawkins, “but after they understood the magnitude of the Swine Flu, they committed themselves to cooperating. Plus, Pastor John threatened to excommunicate anyone who didn’t comply. That was very helpful.”

Some members, however, never did get with the program. “There was no way I was going to let them dunk my kids in a formalin bath before they could go in to Sunday School,” said a visibly upset Carl Hightower. “It was one thing to go through the decontamination chamber, but the bath was overkill.”

Another rule considered onerous by some was the requirement that all worship leaders—including members of the Altar Guild—purchase personal hazmat suits to be worn at all times within the sanctuary. A $200 Disease Control assessment was also sent to members and constituents on the church’s roster. Those who have not yet paid are excluded from Holy Communion.

Other congregations, such as Trinity United Methodist Church in Hiller, Nebraska, established voluntary measures to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus. “Our folks were very happy to pitch in,” said pastor Mary Lou Stetson. “We see this plague for what it truly is—one of the signs of the end times. Satan has many weapons, and if he wants to attack us with a bundle of RNA within a lipid envelope, we’ll proudly put on our hazmat suits of faith.”

Two congregants participate in the Passing of the Peace at Trinity
United Methodist in Hiller, Nebraska.

Stetson agrees that the new policies—she no longer makes hospital visits, and the congregation uses “pretend” bread and juice for communion, for example—make ministry a little more difficult, but she is willing to sacrifice for the sake of the kingdom of God. “Even if I never touch another human being again,” she said, a tear rolling down her cheek behind the faceplate of her contamination suit, “it will all be worth it, to know that I have played a role in God’s great plan of salvation.”

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