Getting Back to Normality Despite COVID, or at Least, Trying

A couple of weeks ago, a member of our congregation approached me.  In short, she shared with me her assessment of our COVID-19 prevention practices.  Well, I quipped back, “Yeah, coming to church is safer than grocery shopping.”  To this, she agreed.  Next, she said I should send out a message, so others in our congregation realize this.  Thus, she planted in my mind the seed for this article. 

Here goes.  In case you’re still staying at home, here’s how our Divine Service operates in this time of COVID.

First, we had to decide where to get our information.  Within our nation, politics drove much of the narrative and dissemination of information, leaving us confused with such contradictory “facts.”  So, we, instead, decided to listen to the leading experts around the world concerning their conclusions about COVID-19. 

What a refreshing revelation of clarity!  Almost all transmissions of the disease are by breathing in vapor from another’s breath.  Though other means of transmission are possible, they rarely happen in the real world.  So, we adapted our Service based on this information. 

To evaporate the water vapor one exhales, we keep the fans in our ventilation system running all the time.  With this increase of circulating air, the extra movement dries out someone’s breath faster, making the virus inert, which requires a medium to transmit. 

More than this, we limit our vigorous breathing.  What this means is that we sing fewer stanzas of hymns, reducing the amount of exhaled water droplets released into the air.  Other parts, like the Confession of Sin and the Creed, are antiphonal, with the pastor and congregation alternating parts.  First, this limits the volume of breath vapor.  Second, these spacings allow time for our exhalations to dissipate and no more be of concern.

Do we implement social distancing?  Of course.  In the narthex, you will also spot signs, reminding us to maintain our social distance.  Once in the sanctuary, you’ll find face masks, hand sanitizer, and bulletins.   The bulletins are laid out, so the one you pick up wasn’t handled by anyone for 24 hours, placed near the sanctuary’s entrance on Saturday. 

Please consider wearing a face mask!  Studies show they are most helpful when everyone wears one, helping minimize COVID spread on both the “transmit” and “receiving” end.  The value of face masks, however, is knowing when to use one.  Wear one when you are passing by, or near, someone. 

However, don’t use a mask continuously if you are a safe distance from everyone else.  Here’s why.  A virus is tiny and can pass through a filter with no problem.  The value a mask brings you is in its ability to absorb water vapor.  So, wear a mask when near others but, when far enough away, don’t.  This helps keep your mask dry, maximizing its water-absorbing capability when you are wearing it!

Next, use the center aisle.  Chairs block the side aisles because they are narrow.  If you use a side aisle, you’ll increase the likelihood of breathing another’s exhalations, something bad. 

Of course, these procedures are only as helpful as our following of them.  From personal experience, however, many more have “violated” my six-foot zone while shopping than at church—big time.  At the store, I wear a mask the entire time because of the changing dynamic.  Such is not the case at church.

We also instituted reasonable practices for communion.  First, the ushers manage the flow of people coming forward to receive.  This ensures proper social distancing.  If we don’t do this, we might find ourselves operating on “autopilot,” getting too close to someone else.

The assisting elder and I are also wearing masks.  Not any old “N95 masks” but HEPA-certified ones with silicone seals.  Why?  The seals ensure our exhaled breath is forced through the filters, not around them.  To provide another level of protection for you, we also wear face shields.  These block the escaping vapor from our masks.  Last, we glove a hand at the last moment and only use the gloved hand to distribute communion.

Another benefit is that these practices prevent the consecrated elements from being breathed on by those receiving.  Further, no one touches any cup, but the one he receives, preventing “cross-contamination.”  The elder holds the top of the little cup; the person receiving only touches the bottom.

After the Service, the ushers come to each pew.  Each person exits while maintaining social distancing.  So, I wasn’t kidding—everything we’ve implemented has shaped the Service to be as safe as possible.

Consider our options in our current climate.  Oh, we did try to slow the spread of the pandemic by quarantine.  Well, what’s been going on for the last few weeks, where many have breathed in breath from others?  Large-scale, crowded protesting and rioting.  The corona virus cares not for politics—and the problem is again out of control. 

The cat’s out of the bag.  We tried the collective option, but failed.  So, I’m going to press on with life, take individual responsibility, and take all reasonable precautions.  Is there another option?  Not for me.  A stay-at-home, self-mandated quarantine for the next two years isn’t something doable.  I’ll do everything I can, wear masks despite not liking them, to serve my neighbor. 

As a pastor, I’ve had many dealings with the poor and dealt with poverty first hand.  My assessment of our economy is not based on theory.  No, it’s the number of people who ask for financial help.  

In our country, churches have an “unspoken contract,” to help the poor if they can. Before the pandemic, the number of folks requesting financial assistance decreased over the last couple of years, by over 50%.  Now, with national unemployment funding soon ending, a shut-down economy will harm the poor more than working will.  So, like all of us, they need to work to live, but also need to stay healthy. 

At first, I supported the quarantine.  Now, I realize it’s unenforceable for a large enough group of people.  Are we going to shoot them?  No.  So, further quarantines will fail.  With many becoming desperate for income, what other option is available?  Can we, as a nation, shut our economy down again and spiral into an unsustainable debt?

The question for you is, “How do you plan to live in these times of COVID”?  You may come to other conclusions than I have.  Still, I think it’s prudent for you to figure out how you will proceed.  Not only how you will not get sick but also how you will live.