Praying for their health

| September 23, 2009

The First Baptist Church of Ken-Gar is traditionally a "hugging congregation." But to slow the spread of germs, especially the H1N1 flu virus, the Rev. Carl Davis said he has urged his flock to make do with a wave and a smile.

"It makes it kind of hard because we want to be about hugging, about love," Davis said. "But now, we’ll just, say, look at someone and tell them ‘I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it.’ We just need to be aware of how not to spread germs."

Several area congregations are taking precautions in the wake of the swine flu outbreak, opting for hand sanitizer over holy water.

At the Christ Church Parish in Kensington, hand sanitizer was put at the altar for the altar party following the Rev. Virginia Gerbasi’s own brush with the H1N1 virus. Gerbasi said she began taking precautions even before she had symptoms, because her sister, with whom she’d had lunch Labor Day weekend, was diagnosed with swine flu a few days later.

Gerbasi skipped a Wednesday sermon as a precaution, and woke up the next day incredibly achy.

"Every bone in my body ached, including—although these aren’t a bone—my eyeballs. My eyeballs hurt," Gerbasi said.

A substitute pastor was brought in for services that Sunday and though Gerbasi has since returned to work, she still tires easily. Ultimately, she said, getting swine flu helped spur the parish to take precautions.

"It gave us an opportunity to look at what we’re doing," Gerbasi said. A proclamation has been made that anyone who is uncomfortable with the communal chalice at communion may forego the wine during flu season.

At Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in North Bethesda, the Rev. Roy Howard now breaks the communion bread into tiny pieces for each parishioner to eat, as opposed to the old practice of individuals tearing pieces from one large loaf. Also at the church, instead of shaking hands for the passing of the peace, some congregants have created a hip-bump hello, while others bow to each other "similar to the Dalai Lama," said the Rev. Roy Howard.

"We’ve really encouraged the congregation to be more creative with their expressions of peace," he said. "Every service is different, but it’s actually been kind of fun."

At Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Bethesda, hugs now take the place of possible flu-infested handshakes.

Robert Rich, director of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Temple Visitor’s Center in Kensington, said LDS services traditionally take the sacrament in individual cups, so no changes have been necessary in the ritual. But missionaries working at the Visitor’s Center have been trained to cough and sneeze into their elbows instead of into their hands, and frequent washing has become gospel.

"There’s a lot of greeting of one another, so we try to keep our hands clean," Rich said. He said if the flu season gets bad and national guidelines are issued by the surgeon general—similar to a recent admonishment in France to forego air kisses—the Visitor’s Center would follow them.

"It’s kind of a different year. This flu season seems like it has the potential to do some scary stuff," Rich said.

During the high holidays, local synagogues are taking some extra precautions when it comes to warding off swine flu.

At Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, stations with hand sanitizer were set up during Rosh Hashana services last weekend, according to Executive Director Marcia Newfeld. The sanitizing stations will also be available during Yom Kippur services on Monday.

However, swine flu didn’t seem to affect the number of people attending services, Newfeld said. "We did not see a decrease in people, but there were people that would otherwise kiss each other on the cheek or give each other a hug that did not do that," Newfeld said.

While the synagogue hasn’t made any specific recommendations that congregants stay home if they feel sick or get vaccinated, Newfeld said she hopes congregants would practice common sense.

"I know there was one parent who said she didn’t bring her child to services because they weren’t feeling well, which we appreciated," Newfeld said.

At the Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac, information about preventing swine flu was printed in a weekly newsletter and e-mailed to congregants, according to Executive Director Alan M. Reinitz. The tip sheet was headed, "For the High Holidays, protect yourself and others with common sense precautions." Words of advice included washing hands, covering coughs, and staying home to recover if sick.

The synagogue also provided hand sanitizer stations for congregants, Reinitz said.

But the Rev. Adam Snell of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church said nothing has changed in his congregation.

"Last year when this hit I made a point of telling the congregation that we are not going to celebrate the sacrament from an attitude of fear," Snell said.

He has always used hand sanitizer, he said, and now makes "more of a demonstration of it." Snell said nobody from the congregation has expressed concerns about the flu season, and Snell is operating from a common sense recommendation.

"If you’re not feeling well, stay home, that’s OK. We miss you, God loves you, come back when you’re feeling better," Snell said. "But we don’t cancel school because of this and we’re certainly not going to cancel church because the cold and flu season is upon us."

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Category: Public Health

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