To the Members and Friends of Union Congregational Church:
“That evening at sunset, they brought to Jesus all who were sick or possessed. And the whole city gathered around the door, and he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” –Mark 1:32-4
Less than a week after they left their nets and became disciples, Simon Peter brought Jesus to his house in Capernaum, where his mother-in-law was in bed, sick with a fever. Hearing about the woman’s condition, Jesus did not hesitate. He went into the small room; no doubt he found her coughing and shaking in a cold sweat. “He came and took her by the hand,” scripture tells us, “and lifted her up, and the fever left her.” He spent the rest of that Sunday meeting and touching and curing everyone in town who gathered around the door of Peter’s house. And then he took his ministry on the road, going throughout Galilee, reaching out to the mentally ill, even to those afflicted by skin infections thought to be so contagious and deadly that no one dared approach. But Jesus, he “stretched out his hand,” placing it warmly upon the lepers’ deadly skin, bringing new life and healing by his presence, his words, and his touch.
I am reaching out to you to address the outbreak of a novel form of coronavirus (COVID-19) that has spread across the state of Massachusetts. Of course, hearty New Englanders are not ones to worry about a little flu bug. But COVID-19 is deadlier, more contagious, and more perplexing to public health officials than the common flu. It has the potential to make many members of our community very sick. What shall our faithful, Christian response be to this dangerous disease?
At this point, Walpole’s Board of Health is preparing specific instructions for churches in town to help craft contingency plans should this virus continue to spread and infect people in our area. In the meantime, I have been assured by public health officials that the most prudent thing we can do to stay healthy is practice good preventative habits:
Wash your hands often with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds
Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose, and mouth.
If you experience symptoms of COVID-19, including fever, cough, and shortness of breath, avoid close contact with other people (within six feet). Symptoms tend to develop approximately 2-14 days after exposure to the virus, which can linger on surfaces for up to 3 days.
Those who become ill should self-quarantine until they are no longer symptomatic. If you must go out, wear a surgical facemask in an effort prevent the spread of the disease. Masks are not 100% effective, and caution should still be exercised when interacting with others. Those who aren’t symptomatic should not wear facemasks.
Here at Union, we are taking extra precautions to prevent the spread of this disease, including extra cleaning with disinfectants in the Sanctuary, Sunday School classrooms, Fellowship Hall, and Nursery, as well as providing hand sanitizer in various locations throughout the church. For those attending worship on Sunday, I would encourage you to spread out in the pews, with at least 6 feet of space between you and your neighbors. In coordination with the Diaconate, I will also be modifying some of the common liturgy for our weekly worship service, including the Passing of the Peace, the Offering, and the Sacrament of Communion in accordance with guidance provided by the Centers for Disease Control and the United Church of Christ. We will also cancel our usual fellowship hour in Herbert Harrison Hall after worship for at least the next two Sundays (March 15 and 22) in order to minimize large group gatherings. Those who do become ill should inform their deacon or me, so that the church can provide appropriate pastoral care and prayer.
These measures mostly answer questions prompted by fear and anxiety; but what about the questions of faith, of our responsibility as disciples following in the footsteps of Christ? How will we reach out to heal the sick?
At one point in Mark’s Gospel, the disciples come across a demon they cannot cast out. Despite their best efforts, they cannot cure a young boy’s illness, so they bring him to Jesus. When Jesus performs the miraculous healing, they ask, “Why could we not cast it out?” Jesus explained, “This kind can come out only through prayer and fasting.”
We do not know what sort of demon COVID-19 is, and so, like the disciples, we should be diligent and careful in our attempts to cast it out. Everyone should maintain healthy habits in order to help prevent the spread of disease to susceptible populations: the elderly, the very young, and the otherwise immunocompromised. Even if you aren’t worried about getting sick yourself, we all have a Christian responsibility to care for our neighbors, especially the vulnerable ones. But there is also power in prayer and fasting. There is power in the hopeful worship of a God who can reach out with a healing touch. We have a Christian responsibility for that too.
So let us not be strangers to one another or to God as times get tough. Union Congregational will remain an open and inviting sanctuary, a caring community connected through God, welcoming all in the name of Christ. Let us pray and fast together in the sure and certain hope of a Healing God
who can do all things, beyond what we could ever ask or imagine.
In Grace and Peace,
Rev. Dr. Aaron Shepherd