Religious communities react to impact of coronavirus on services
As concern over the spread of the novel coronavirus in the Portland metro area grows, religious groups are taking steps to limit the chances of people becoming ill while still giving worshipers the opportunity to practice their faith.
Religious leaders in western Washington County say they've seen a decrease in attendance at recent services as they implement recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and try to stay up to date on advisories from local health officials about large gatherings.
On Wednesday evening, March 11, Gov. Kate Brown ordered all gatherings of more than 250 people to be canceled for the next four weeks. While that prohibition applies to large religious services, but many local religious communities typically gather every week in numbers fewer than the limit.
The Rev. Clay Andrews, senior pastor at the Hillsboro United Methodist Church, said he's written a letter to his congregation reinforcing messages from the Oregon Health Authority about frequent and proper handwashing technique, avoiding close contact with people, and what to do if people are worried about their susceptibility to the virus or may have it.
"We're encouraging folks to stay home, reminding them that it's better to stay home and take care of yourself and others than to feel like God is going to be mad at you if you don't come to worship on Sunday," Andrews said.
The church's total congregation is about 200 people, and about 110 people typically attend Sunday worship services, Andrews said, adding that he's seen a decrease in attendance for a few weeks.
"We've tried to be as encouraging and supportive of that choice as we can," he said. "We're acting in a sort of balance of being precautious but also not trying to be fearful, recognizing that there's value in gathering if it's a safe thing to do. If the (OHA) says 'you shouldn't be gathering,' then we won't."
One Bible group has voluntarily elected to stop meeting in the near future because most of its members are over the age of 70, Andrews said.
Andrews said the median age of the congregation is in the 50s, but people of all ages attend.
The church has stopped its bus service that picks up elderly congregants who live in long-term care facilities because of a recent OHA guideline for that population to stop non-essential contact.
Andrews as well as Rabbi Menachem Rivkin of the Chabad Jewish Center of Hillsboro have been reinforcing to their congregants that taking health officials' guidelines seriously is a form of caring for their community.
"This virus creates a lot of isolation, people are isolated from each other, so it seems like a very negative thing — and at the same time, it's a reminder of unity," Rivkin said. "As isolated as we are, we are almost united more than ever before against it."
Rivkin said he will wait for direction from health officials about whether gatherings under 250 people should be canceled before canceling any services. For now, he and others at the Hillsboro synagogue are cleaning surfaces frequently and abiding by OHA recommendations about hygiene, he said.
Like Andrews, Rivkin said there has been a decrease in service attendance recently, including during Purim celebrations, which took place from Monday to Tuesday, March 10. The holiday celebrates the saving of the Jewish people in the ancient Persian Empire, where leaders plotted to kill all Jews, according to the Book of Esther.
In a few weeks, Passover, the Jewish celebration of the deliverance of Jews from slavery in Egypt, will begin.
Rivkin said the Passover seder is still scheduled as planned, but he hasn't opened registration for the dinner event in case health officials change guidelines and advise against such gatherings.
"Let's increase acts of goodness and kindness, obviously according to the measures we need to take now," Rivkin said.
Andrews said he will not be touching worshipers during services, and he's advising people broadly to avoid skin-to-skin contact with others.
Andrews said such measures can be a difficult adjustment, because members of faith communities are often affectionate with each other.
"It is such a part of our normal culture to be connecting that way," Andrews said. "We've reminded folks that you can exchange love and care for one and other, and you can exchange affection, without exchanging viruses. As much as we might enjoy handshakes and hugs, we're inviting folks to bump elbows or just great one and other with a nod and a smile. It has been a learning curve, but people are adapting."
In an effort to allow people to still feel connected to the church without feeling like they need to attend a service, Andrews said he will start live streaming services for the first time.
"It's going to be a new experience for us and our folks, so we're sure there's going to be some bumps in the road," Andrews said, adding that a Methodist Church congregation in Seattle that hasn't been gathering for worship has been sharing tips about how to live stream services.
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