Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Faith and pandemic planning

Gatherings don't have to be cause for fear

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For several hours last week, Capt. Les Marshall put his faith in action at a neighbourhood health clinic, greeting and directing folks who showed up for their seasonal flu shots.

"I'd like to think that the Salvation Army is known for being there in time of need," explains Marshall, one of 84 Salvation Army members who volunteered at the city's seasonal flu vaccination clinics. "I think it's a ministry of presence. It's putting our talk and walk into action."

That ministry of presence may be one of the main roles for the city's faith communities in light of an influenza pandemic, suggests Rev. Rick Sauer of St. Mark's Lutheran Church.

"Maybe part of our mandate is to get people to take a realistic view of things and calm down and reach out and take care of others in the community," he says.

Next Wednesday evening, Sauer's Corydon Avenue congregation, along with the Manitoba Interfaith Council, hosts a public forum on the H1N1 flu virus for people across the faith traditions.

Many religious groups in Winnipeg have already installed hand sanitizer dispensers in their buildings and implemented measures to limit physical contact during religious rituals. At the recent High Holy Days, congregants at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue were asked to refrain from shaking hands and tissue boxes were distributed in most pews, says Rabbi Lawrence Pinsker.

Over at the Hindu Temple on St. Anne's Road, worshippers are encouraged to use the traditional Indian greeting of putting their hands together instead Western-style handshakes, says priest Venkat Machiraju.

In late September, the city's two Roman Catholic archdioceses asked parishes to empty holy water fonts, install hand sanitizer dispensers, and modify how they celebrate the eucharist.

Although these measures are essential for making worship practices safer in the threat of a pandemic, substituting an elbow knock for handshakes during the passing of the peace ritual in Christian worship has been an adjustment for some church goers, says Rev. Sharon Wilson of Windsor Park United Church.

"I hope we're being reasonable. We've really tried to educate people on what we can do. We're trying not to get drawn into the pandemonium around the pandemic," says Wilson. She estimates she now washes her hands up to two dozen times a day as she visits parishioners in hospitals and nursing homes, or meets people in her office.

Faith groups have to balance the need for safe and antiseptic practices with their desire to build community, admits Dr. Brent Kvern, a family practitioner who will present information on preventative flu measures at the Oct. 21 public forum. He says people don't need to panic about gathering for religious services, as long as proper precautions are taken.

"We don't see lots of people getting sick at church functions, but it could happen," says Kvern, a member of St. Mark's Lutheran Church.

In addition to modifying their worship practices and cleaning routines, the biggest role of faith communities may be to remain a calm and helpful presence in the face of widespread illness, suggests Colleen Schneider, a manager in the community help program of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

In response to requests from spiritual leaders in Winnipeg, Schneider developed a list of ways faith communities can serve the community during a health crisis, including caring for vulnerable people, training volunteers in infection control and promoting flu prevention messages. She also suggests that churches, synagogues, temples and mosques can organize their members to be "flu friends" who would collect medications, supplies and food for those taken ill with the flu.

"Faith communities have always played a role in helping people during critical times in their lives," she says.

Sauer says reducing anxiety around a looming crisis could be an important role for his congregation in the face of a pandemic.

"God is with us and even if we get stuck with the virus it doesn't mean the end of the world or the end of faith," he says.

"We are still called to be aware of the needs of others and reach out."

Faith and the flu

Prevent flu by stocking your house of worship with hand-washing supplies and hand sanitizer, and by frequent cleaning of washrooms, counters, tables, doorknobs, handles, toys and telephones

Set up a rapid communication system within your faith community and figure out ways to provide worship through technology

Identify people who can step in if church leaders are taken ill

Expand your base of pastoral visitors in case of increased demand due to widespread illness

Organize your faith community to be 'flu friends' who can assist ill people by collecting medication, supplies, and buying groceries

Source: Protecting Your Faith Community from Influenza by Winnipeg Regional Health Authority

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 18, 2009 B5

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