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Swine Flu Scare: Religions Take Precautions

5 years ago
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Faith is about an individual's personal relationship to God, but worship is a contact sport.

Since before the dawn of history people have been gathering for religious rituals, to pray and to praise together -- and for just as long they have been spreading disease through their interactions. Hence the growing alarm among religious leaders and congregants alike over the possibility of a swine flu epidemic.

It is a concern that runs across national and religious boundaries.

In India, for example, Hindu leaders called for a suspension of a popular custom of young people creating tall "human pyramids" during the Janmashtami festival (which celebrates the birth of Krishna) in order to reduce the possibility of infection.

In Italy, church and civil authorities in Naples decided to ban (albeit reluctantly) the widespread practice of kissing a gold-and-glass reliquary holding the blood of the city's patron, San Gennaro, during the saint's annual festival last month. The dried blood of the saint (Gennaro, or Januarius, in English, was martyred in 305 AD) liquefies twice a year during a special celebration, and many Neapolitans say that if it doesn't liquefy disaster will strike the city. But fear of the H1N1 virus is nearly as strong, and the devout will only be allowed to touch the vial with their foreheads.

And in Israel the situation could be even worse. Jews of all levels of observance generally kiss a mezuzah -- a small wood or metal cylinder containing verses of scripture that is posted on the lintel of almost ever doorway -- on their way in and out of each room, usually by kissing their fingers after touching them to the mezuzah. Studies have shown mezuzot are, no surprise, pit stops for bacteria, so the alarm was sounded. The Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar proposed an "air-kissing" solution ("If a specific order is given in the matter, the mezuzah must be kissed from the air, to ensure that the custom is not forgotten") while other leading rabbis have called for a fast to be spared from an epidemic.

Church services may pose the greatest risks, however.Christians not only gather together for worship at least weekly, but they also dip their fingers in common fonts of holy water, pass baskets up and down the pews to collect donations, exchange handshakes and hugs at the sign of peace, and -- in varying formats -- share bread and wine at communion, sometimes drinking from a single chalice or picking from a loaf of bread. Those churches in which a priest or minister gives out individual wafers of consecrated bread aren't much better off, studies show, especially if the minister is dipping the Host in a chalice or placing it on each communicant's tongue.

Last Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services joined with the White House Office for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships to issue a guide for worshipers and clergy to limit the spread of the virus. The guide says congregants should wash their hands often, avoid large gatherings, and stay home if they feel sick -- measures known by the rather chilly term of "social distancing." The guide also says that "faith and community leaders may consider adjusting such practices" as a common cup "in order to reduce the spread of flu."

In some places that's already happening. The Roman Catholic bishop of Brooklyn, where the first cases of swine flu were reported last spring, this month told priests in all 198 parishes to stop offering wine during communion and said they should distribute communion in the hand rather than on the tongue, which is an older practice that some parishioners, especially the elderly, still prefer. The bishop in St. Cloud, Minn., has done the same, and in the Archdiocese of Washington, pastors are reminding parishioners that they can give each other a friendly nod instead of shaking hands at the Sign of Peace, which is exchanged just before communion.

In its detailed series of guidelines, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) held out the possibility that church services could be suspended entirely -- as happened in Mexico City in April -- if the situation deteriorates, and said congregants may want to consider decreasing the frequency with which they receive communion. The PCUSA guidelines also counsel ministers to think about preparing communion while wearing surgical gloves or masks, pre-cutting communion bread with a "sanitized electric knife," and having worshipers spread themselves out among the pews to create an "envelope" of personal space -- all of which, the guide concedes, is not exactly the message the church wants to convey.
"Passing a bottle of hand sanitizer around is not a good symbolic action, since part of the meaning of Communion is the notion that the Lord welcomes sinners, those who are unclean, into the divine presence," the guide says. "Saying you have to be sanitized to partake of the Lord's Supper can undermine the symbolism of God's grace."
On the other hand, some more entrepreneurial spirits are finding the swine flu scare a rare opportunity in an otherwise bleak economy.

A company called Purity Communion Solutions was founded in 2007 to market "germ-free products that take the worry out of contracting germs while receiving communion, and ultimately increasing communion participation and church attendance." Purity Communion Solutions already has 375,000 client churches, church supply houses and the like, and its Web site features all sorts of information about the H1N1 virus, as well as products that aim to keep you in church, and keep you healthy. They include an automated host dispenser in gold, silver, or white, as well as wafers infused with wine: "Improved taste and texture" and "eliminates germs, spills & waste."

The ComPak Company of Fayetteville, Ga., has been at it even longer, since 2003, and their Celebration Cup is increasingly popular, according to company president Robert Johnson.

"I can't necessarily attribute the growth to concerns about it [the flu virus] but we are hearing more concerns about it," Johnson said, adding: "People want the convenience; they want the sanitary scenario the cup provides, and there are more people going to church" because of the down economy, he said. It all adds up to a greater market at a time when customers -- congregants -- are concerned about actually going to church.

The Celebration Cup looks like an oversized version of the jelly packets you get at a diner, only in this case you peel back the first air-tight seal to reveal the wafer, then you peel back another seal to drink the grape juice. (Johnson says they are working on the permits to allow them to ship wine in the containers: "Wine is in our pipeline.")

Skeptics might scoff that if Christians had faith in God they wouldn't fear going to church even in a pandemic, or they would pray for protection, or for a cure if their supplications didn't reach the Almighty's ear in time to forestall infection.

Faith doesn't really work that way, actually. Certainly, the early Christians were known for their willingness to nurse the sick and dying during plagues while others ran for the hills. Such acts of mercy were powerful influences in the church's remarkable growth during those first centuries after Christ.

But as scholars are discovering, this Christian sacrifice wasn't simply a matter of martyrdom. While it was once believed that early Christians attributed all illness to demons and believed exorcism was the only cure -- and faith the only vaccine to prevent disease -- in reality preachers also taught that God works through the physician (pagan or Christian) who heals the patient. And because early Christians took care of the body as well as the soul, more of them survived, which was the most effective sermon anyone could preach, then or now.

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