There is a dispenser of Purell hand sanitizer on the counter just inside my church’s front lobby. Last Sunday, greeters intercepted me at the door to shake my hand. I shook, then made a beeline for the Purell. The woman standing at the counter chuckled.
During the service, my pastor encouraged us to “say hi to your neighbors.” More hugs and hand-shaking all around. I did not touch anything but my pen and my Bible for the entirety of the service, and made another beeline for the Purell as we left. The woman at the counter chuckled again. “Worried about the flu?”
I’ve addressed this before, more obliquely, in another post, but it’s worth a post of its own: brothers and sisters, it is flu season, and everyone is sick. Is it possible that we can take a brief hiatus from the more physically affectionate expressions of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood until we all get the plague under control?
I don’t know about you, but in my area the flu has become a huge problem. Urgent cares and hospital emergency rooms are filled to the brim with sufferers, creating ludicrous wait times. The elderly and children are particularly vulnerable to the complications that the flu can cause, and in severe cases can end up hospitalized. Several fatalities in my city have been reported. A local news show pointed out that area hospitals are discouraging casual visitors and requiring face masks, gloves, and sanitizer in a desperate effort to protect patients and staff.
And it’s not just the elderly or children at risk. People with compromised immune systems, long-term conditions, and those undergoing chemotherapy and other procedures are vulnerable to the perils of the cold and flu season. Nor does an illness need to be life-threatening to cause problems: a single mother waylaid by a typical bout of the flu, for example, runs the risk of losing job hours and having to hire an additional carer.
With all this in mind, it would behoove us – indeed, it’s an act of compassion – to be careful about spreading germs around our congregations. Or to stay home, if need be, to keep our illnesses confined. It’s good to be in church, but not if we spread our germs to everyone around us. It’s wonderful to show our care, but there are ways to do that beyond hugs and handshakes.
Here are some immediate steps you can take to protect yourself and those around you:
1. Bring hand sanitizer and/or provide it to your congregation. There’s no substitute for hand-washing, but it’s not always easy to get to a bathroom or a sink. Tuck away some hand sanitizer in your purse or pocket or glove compartment, and use it when necessary. Alternatively, if you have a lobby like our church does, stock it with a dispenser or two.
2. Wash your hands! Whenever you see a sink, wash your hands with hot water and soap. (How long? Sing the Happy Birthday song twice in your head and you’re set.)
3. Cough or sneeze into a tissue or, failing that, your elbow/upper sleeve. Don’t cough or sneeze on your hands! (Make sure your kids do this, too.)
4. Dispose of tissues and other items appropriately.
5. Find other ways to participate in “greeting fellowship.” It would be great if, from the pulpit, a pastor or member of staff could encourage believers to greet each other thoughtfully from a distance during the flu season. Lacking that, though, you can simply say a warm hello, or refuse a handshake or hug with “I’m so sorry, but I don’t want to make anyone sick/spread germs/spread the flu.” I know a man who taps people on the shoulder with church bulletins as his way of saying hello. Feel free to get inventive.
6. Be mindful of your ministries. If you do ministry work with the elderly or with children, be extra careful and do your best not to place anyone at risk.
7. Stay home if you’re sick. You do not get extra Jesus points for suffering from the flu in God’s house. If you’re contagious, or might be contagious, stay home. Many churches offer their sermons and programs now on DVD so that you can watch them later, and God will understand.
If we’re truly going to care for those in need and those who are vulnerable, that work starts in our own congregations – and it’s pretty simple. This flu season, make sure that you act with compassion and thoughtfulness for others around you in the church.