Grace and peace to you from God our Creator, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
On this Saturday morning, the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic continues to spread as local, state and federal agencies and governments work to respond to continually changing conditions. Here in the synod office, we are continuing to monitor the situation and share information and guidance with you as we all make decisions about our ministries in uncertain, unclear and often murky waters. I am so grateful for all of you as you try to respond care-fully, faithfully and prudently in your local congregations and ministries. You continue to be in our prayers.
As some of our ecumenical partners and others have mandated or strongly recommended suspending worship services, we have received questions and shared wisdom about when and how to make this decision. A number of congregations in our synod have already decided to suspend worship at least through the end of the month in order to protect vulnerable members and do our part in slowing the spread of COVID-19. It is important to note that, in the organizational structure of our church, these decisions are local decisions made by local church leaders. Unlike other churchbodies, ELCA bishops don’t have the authority to mandate such closures. (I only share that because I’ve been asked about it…)
The response I have given to those who have looked to us for guidance, and which I offer to all of you as you make these decisions would be to base your decision on what is happening in your local contexts (which vary widely across our large synod):
Follow similar decision-making processes that you use when determining whether to hold worship services in the face of an impending storm. Several congregations gauge their decisions based on the decision of the local school system. Because this virus is particularly virulent for our elders, consider what other programs for seniors are doing in your community as you make your decisions.
Pay close attention to the recommendations, guidance and mandates of local and state public health officials and governments. If suspension of worship and other church gatherings is recommended, I would strongly encourage you to follow these recommendations. If it is mandated, follow the mandate.
While, to date, many of the government mandates regarding public gatherings relate to groups larger than 100 or more participants, it may still make sense to suspend or cancel smaller gatherings (which would include most of our AR-OK Sunday worship services). For groups less than 100, you may want to ask these questions as you decide whether to hold worship services:
Have you encouraged vulnerable individuals and those over 60 not to attend? For many of us, that would pretty much mean suspending worship.
Can you meet the recommendations for physical distance of 3-6’ between people in your worship services?
Are you able to provide proper handwashing, hand sanitizers and take other recommended steps to prevent the spread of the virus?
Will those who have symptoms that could be related to the coronavirus voluntarily stay away from worship?
Our goal in deciding whether or not to have worship should be based on protecting the most vulnerable among us and in doing our part to prevent further spread of this virus.
During an outbreak of the plague in Wittenburg, Germany in the 16th century, Martin Luther gave this advice to his congregation and I pass his thoughts on for your reflection:
Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city.
What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body? You ought to think this way: “Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it.
I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.
If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God…
“Whoever loves danger,” says the wise man, “will perish by it” [Ecclus. 3:26]. If the people in a city were to show themselves bold in their faith when a neighbor’s need so demands, and cautious when no emergency exists, and if everyone would help ward off contagion as best he can, then the death toll would indeed be moderate. But if some are too panicky and desert their neighbors in their plight, and if some are so foolish as not to take precautions but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a heyday and many will die.
Luther Works, volume 43, p. 132
On our website, aokelca.org, you will find a list of suggestions for how to continue to care for and keep your members connected to one another during this crisis, especially if you chose to suspend worship. We are also collecting links and resources to help you negotiate things during this time. Please send your links and resources to our communication coordinator Krista Feierabend at email@example.com so we can share them with one another. Several congregations are livestreaming, posting worship podcasts and other online gatherings -- if you are doing so, please pass the links for those to Krista as well, so that congregations that do not have the capacity to do that can join you online.
In closing this very long letter, I offer you two prayers shared by Bishops on our Bishops’ listserv yesterday:
Rev. Michael K. Girlinghouse, Bishop
Prayer for a Pandemic
St. Mary’s Academy, Portland, OR May we who are merely inconvenienced Remember those whose lives are at stake. May we who have no risk factors Remember those most vulnerable. May we who have the luxury of working from home Remember those who must choose between preserving their health or making their rent. May we who have the flexibility to care for our children when their schools close Remember those who have no options. May we who have to cancel our trips Remember those that have no safe place to go. May we who are losing our margin money in the tumult of the economic market Remember those who have no margin at all. May we who settle in for a quarantine at home Remember those who have no home. As fear grips our country, Let us choose love. During this time when we cannot physically wrap our arms around each other, let us yet find ways to be the loving embrace of God to our neighbors. Amen.
A prayer from Kerry Weber, America (Jesuit Review)
Jesus Christ, you traveled through towns and villages “curing every disease and illness.” At your command, the sick were made well. Come to our aid now, in the midst of the global spread of the coronavirus, that we may experience your healing love.
Heal those who are sick with the virus. May they regain their strength and health through quality medical care.
Heal us from our fear, which prevents nations from working together and neighbors from helping one another.
Heal us from our pride, which can make us claim invulnerability to a disease that knows no borders.
Jesus Christ, healer of all, stay by our side in this time of uncertainty and sorrow.
Be with those who have died from the virus. May they be at rest with you in your eternal peace.
Be with the families of those who are sick or have died. As they worry and grieve, defend them from illness and despair. May they know your peace.
Be with the doctors, nurses, researchers and all medical professionals who seek to heal and help those affected and who put themselves at risk in the process. May they know your protection and peace.
Be with the leaders of all nations. Give them the foresight to act with charity and true concern for the well-being of the people they are meant to serve. Give them the wisdom to invest in long-term solutions that will help prepare for or prevent future outbreaks. May they know your peace, as they work together to achieve it on earth.
Whether we are home or abroad, surrounded by many people suffering from this illness or only a few, Jesus Christ, stay with us as we endure and mourn, persist and prepare. In place of our anxiety, give us your peace.
Jesus Christ, heal us.