Congregations embracing good hygiene in face of flu

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Usually, during the "sharing of the peace" at Hosanna! Lutheran Church in Liberty, Mo., congregants mingle throughout the sanctuary, greeting each other with handshakes and hugs.

That was before H1N1.

Hosanna and other area congregations have been seeking ways to protect their people without drastically changing their worship practices.

For the last few Sundays, the Revs. Timothy and Patricia Baglien, Hosanna co-pastors, have tried different methods of greeting without touching hands.

"The first week, we bumped elbows," said Patricia Baglien. "The people were laughing and enjoying doing it, trying to bump elbows.

"Then at the close of the service as I greeted people at the door, people were saying we should try this. One person said, 'Let's do bones.' That's when you make a fist and hit knuckles. We did that the next Sunday, and the children really got into that one.

"Then someone said, 'Let's bow to one another, like what they do in the Orient,' so we did that the third week. The following week we squeezed shoulders."

This past Sunday it was circular motions with palms out like washing a window, but without touching.

"When we go to church we never know what to expect," said Harley Morlock of Smithville, with a laugh. "When it comes time to 'Share the peace,' the pastor will say, 'This is what we're going to do today.'

"We (he and wife Jackie Morlock) think it's kind of cute. Everybody goes along with it. There are some people who are frightened of the flu, so I think it's a good thing."

The flu threat resulted in an aborted trip last Sunday for youngsters at Community Covenant Church in Kearney, Mo., who had been preparing to visit a retirement and nursing home.

"Then the home called and said it probably was not the wisest time to do this," said the Rev. Mike Coglan, pastor. "They were concerned about the children bringing germs into the home. The kids had been looking forward to this. But we understood their concerns."

Coglan knows of one household in the congregation that has a confirmed case of the H1N1 virus, and all of the family members are staying home. He said a discussion on whether to take precautionary measures against the flu probably will take place at the next church council meeting.

"But we all can't stay home for the winter," he said. "There always will be some risks involved."

Concern about spreading the flu in houses of worship has led the federal government and religious groups to issue precautionary guidelines.

The White House Office for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and the Department of Health and Human Services released a guide suggesting that houses of worship encourage congregants to wash their hands often, use hand sanitizer, avoid crowded situations and interact without physical contact when possible.

It also urges religious leaders to keep in contact with local health organizations and closely adhere to their recommendations.

The National Association of Evangelicals recently suggested in an e-mail to its member congregations that they follow the White House guide, which can be found at

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued information on the H1N1 virus that included suggestions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the best ways to prevent transmission of the virus, mainly by frequently washing hands.

The bishops said that "it is ultimately the responsibility of the diocesan bishop to recommend or mandate liturgical changes in response to influenza in particular local areas."

Neither local Catholic diocese has issued directives, but officials are monitoring the situation.

Deacon Ralph Wehner, director of the office of worship at the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, said the vicar general sent letters to the pastors telling them to make prudent decisions in their own parishes.

Catholics who are concerned about the flu and drinking from the common cup can receive just the sacred host and still be in compliance with the faith, Wehner said.

"Catholics believe that the entire Christ is in both the bread and the wine," he said. "So you can receive one alone and receive the entire Christ."

Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann sent a memo to archdiocesan pastors and parishes when the H1N1 threat surfaced in the spring, said Carroll Macke, spokesman.

The memo "strongly encouraged" priests, deacons and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion to wash their hands before Mass, use alcohol-based solutions before and after distributing Holy Communion and if possible, avoid unnecessary physical contact during the liturgy.

Also, "persons who are feeling ill should be instructed not to receive the Precious Blood from the communion chalice" and the faithful also should avoid unnecessary physical contact. "You may wish to ask your people during this health emergency to extend the sign of peace in a manner other than shaking hands."

Msgr. Michael Mullen of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Kansas City, Kan., said he hasn't noticed any appreciable decrease in members drinking from the cup.

"We cleanse the chalice after each person, so the possibility of passing on the flu would be minimal," he said.

Greeters at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood usually shake hands with worshippers as they enter the church, said Peter Metz, spokesman.

"But Adam (Hamilton, the senior pastor) said people didn't have to shake hands if they didn't want to, and the greeters have hand sanitizers," he said. "Adam also said that if people didn't want to shake hands in greeting each other, they could bump elbows, but most people still shake hands."

Those serving Communion always have used sanitizers, Metz said, but this month was the first time ushers squirted everyone's hands with sanitizer. The server hands each person a little piece of bread, and a third of the bread is dipped into a common cup.

The Rev. Shirley Fletcher, pastor of St. Peter C.M.E. Church in Kansas City, Kan., said hand sanitizers are in the church entryway and throughout the building. After shaking hands at the end of the service, she is cautious not to touch her face until after she has sanitized her hands.

She also will caution her people not to kiss each other on the cheek as a greeting and advise them to take vitamins and eat healthy to keep up their immune systems.

Because of their cleansing rituals, Muslims have less to worry about, said Arif Ahmad, secretary of the Islamic Center of Johnson County in Overland Park.

"Before we go into prayer, there is the ritual of washing yourself, your hands, face, arms and feet," he said. "That by itself keeps a portion of the germs out. This is done before any prayer, at home or the mosque.

"So everyone has cleaned himself or herself and nobody wears shoes, so we are kind of parking our germs at the doorstep and not bringing them in."

Since no shoes are worn, the carpet is cleaner than in most houses of worship, he said.

"People have been told if you are sick, think about others," Ahmad said. "I can't ask a person not to come. All men are supposed to go to a mosque for the Friday prayer. But common sense says if you are sick, it is all right to say home. Also, we have 20 to 25 children coming every day for Qur'an studies, and we have not had any who have gotten sick."

Pastors have so many things to deal with that often they don't get into health issues, said the Rev. Michael Brooks, pastor of Zion Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, "but we should educate our people about this and other health matters."

During a revival next month, the church will conduct a health fair and one session will cover the H1N1 virus, he said. Also he plans to talk to the church leadership about possible precautions. One idea would be to distribute small bottles of hand sanitizer to each person as they come to worship.

"Even if some of the fear is a little overboard, it is better to be safe than sorry," he said.

Rabbi Herbert Mandl of Kehilath Israel Synagogue in Overland Park, Kan., said several members have had the H1N1 virus, "but services go on as usual."

"We have hand sanitizers all over the place," he said, "and some people are not shaking hands. Some people are not kissing the Torah as it is walked around during services."

He said he heard that at some East Coast synagogues people are blowing kisses at the Torah, but he has not seen anyone at his congregation doing that.

"Life goes on," Mandl said. "I'm not going to change anything, only if it is a life-threatening situation. If you take care and take precautions, you should be OK."

Share This Story