EVEN though it’s allowed, please don’t go to church or mosque, synagogue, temple or any other place of worship.
That’s the message shared by Dr. Tim Hiebert, who specializes in internal medicine at Health Sciences Centre and in palliative care.
Places of worship that are still meeting in person "should cancel all those services," he said, even though current health orders allow them to be held at reduced capacity.
If someone’s place of worship offers in-person services, "don’t go," he said.
This is the second time Hiebert, a member of River East Church, part of the Mennonite Brethren denomination, has issued that appeal. The last time was in November, as the second wave of cases hit, forcing the province into lockdown.
Getting together with others was risky then, he said, but it’s much more dangerous now because of the variants.
"Sitting in one place for an extended period of time, even with physical distancing, poses a significant risk," he said, noting the number of cases in Manitoba is trending upwards again. "That is even riskier now."
If Manitobans want to avoid massive case counts and widespread transmission, as witnessed in Ontario, then not going to in-person worship services "is one thing we should do," he said.
For Hiebert, the primary reason for staying home is to show care for vulnerable and marginal people.
"When we look at who is harmed the most by the virus, who is getting sick and going to the ICU, it is people who are financially challenged, people of colour, they are at highest risk," he said. "We need to take steps to protect them."
He also wants people to stay away from worship services for the sake of health-care workers.
"Speaking on behalf of the medical profession, I can say we’re so very tired," he said.
"This pandemic has been relentless. There’s a feeling we can’t hold up much longer. We don’t know how much longer we can keep doing what we’re doing, especially with the variants bearing down on us."
Although Hiebert is not on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, he is in contact with many health-care professionals who are.
"I just know how worn out everyone is, every doctor, nurse, health-care aide and everyone else in the medical field," he said.
"Even more than last November, things feel daunting and discouraging. We don’t feel strong. We are tired. We’re tired of the tragedy, the suffering, the heartache and the death. And we are tired of being tired."
If for no other reason, "do it for us," he said of his plea to not go to in-person religious services. "We are trying very hard to provide good care. We’re not sure how much longer we can endure."
Hiebert realizes in-person religious services are very important to some. Even so, "people of faith should stay home… we can do better than just what the public health orders say we can do. That’s just the minimum standard," he said.
People of faith, he believes, are called to a higher standard.
"All people of faith have a responsibility for others, for society," he said, adding "we are duty bound to show care for those around us."
Plus, he said, virtual services can be meaningful. "Church is more than a building. We’re not compromising our faith if we do it online," he said.
Hiebert emphasized he doesn’t want to be seen as being critical of those who are bearing the burden of trying to make decisions about openings and closings during the pandemic. As a doctor, he feels uncomfortable saying these things in public.
"It’s a long-standing part of the medical culture not to rock the boat," he said. "We are told to only speak up when things are really important."
This moment, as the variants of concern continue to grow, is very important, he said. "I want to appeal to people’s best selves to do what they can to protect others. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Through vaccinations, we can all get there."
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.