Frequently, I am asked about how our church handles suggestions from health organizations to help stem the tide of infectious diseases, particularly during occasions of “passing the peace” and celebrating communion in public worship. Here’s what I think.
Wash your hands frequently. There are more than 40 sinks in our building, not including the six required in our kitchen. We also have hand sanitizers throughout our building. People are encouraged to take advantage of both. When washing your hands, use warm water, work between your fingers and don’t stop for a minimum of 20 seconds.
Folded arms. Arms folded across the chest is a great and helpful signal of not participating in forms of public greeting. It communicates not only an unwillingness to shake a hand, but also that you may be feeling unwell and don’t want to be a possible carrier of disease to others. Flashing the “peace sign” may also be a way of greeting without touching. We should accept these postures and forms of greeting without shame or judgment. Individuals can and should decide how much they want to interact with others without a mandate of expected behavior for all.
Communion. No one should ever prepare or serve communion who has not thoroughly cleaned their hands and is free of fever. Yet that does not address the cross-contamination that’s possible when communion is passed person to person, as in most Baptist contexts. My Catholic and Episcopalian colleagues, who share a common cup and individually place the bread in the receiver’s hands, are instructing their worried congregants to just take the bread and skip the cup. For us, who use individual serving cups, the situation is reversed. If concerned, take the cup and not the bread.
Of course, if you are especially concerned, pass the elements on without participating. Again, it should be emphasized, as with “passing of the peace,” to respect and honor each individual’s choice. Each person must decide how they want to manage personal contact with one another at church. I encourage people to respect these decisions and be sensitive and caring to those choosing a way different from our own.
Stay home. Finally, if you are sick, fevered or have symptoms of a flu or severe cold, please stay home. If you fear you are contagious, the best thing for your recovery and those who might be around you is to stay home. If you fear you have H1N1, you should seek medical advice and attention immediately. You can find more information on the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control.
Paul reminded the Corinthians that we are all members of one body. When one of us is sick, we are all diminished and concerned. Yet we are called to care for one another, weeping with the sorrowful and celebrating with the happy. In these challenging times, I encourage people to balance their love and affection for one another through appropriate gestures while respecting individual differences and decisions to abstain from contact.
In this balance, there is healthy room for all.
Mark Johnson is senior minister at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.