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‘The place we go for comfort in peace is also potentially unsafe’: Spokane houses of worship struggle to protect congregations

The Most Reverend Michael Bruce Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church hands a Bible to Canon Gretchen Mary Rehberg during her Ordination as Bishop in the Church of God and the Ninth Bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Spokane at The Cathedral of St. John The Evangelist in Spokane on Saturday, March 18, 2017. Rehberg, like many religious leaders, are working to find ways to reach people in different ways as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
The Most Reverend Michael Bruce Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church hands a Bible to Canon Gretchen Mary Rehberg during her Ordination as Bishop in the Church of God and the Ninth Bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Spokane at The Cathedral of St. John The Evangelist in Spokane on Saturday, March 18, 2017. Rehberg, like many religious leaders, are working to find ways to reach people in different ways as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Bishop Gretchen Rehberg was an Episcopal minister in New York when two airplanes struck the World Trade Center in 2001, causing a crisis that compelled thousands of Americans to seek reassurance in houses of worship.

As Americans face a different crisis with the coronavirus outbreak, places of worship in Spokane face a completely different dynamic: how to comfort a panicked population when the act of gathering itself may pose the worst danger.

“In this time, with a virus that currently has no vaccine and no treatment and no protection against it and is highly dangerous to the elderly, maybe it means we worship from home for a while,” Rehberg said. “Or we pick up the phone and call, or livestream using technology that didn’t exist 20 years ago.”

As result, the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane is joining several other faith communities that are taking precautions and canceling activities, or preparing to do so.

“As of right now, I’m not instructing congregations to stop holding worship, because the local health authority is not asking us to do that,” Rehberg said. “But we are planning for that contingency. When gathering might endanger somebody, we need to listen to that.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Thursday it is suspending public gatherings of church members worldwide “until further notice.” That includes canceling Sunday services and midweek activities for more than 30,000 congregations across the globe, according to the LDS website.

“We are deeply concerned about the global spreading of illness caused by COVID-19,” the senior LDS church leaders wrote in a statement.

Temple Beth Shalom, located on Spokane’s South Hill, has canceled its educational programs, but its Saturday morning service is scheduled to go on as planned, administrative assistant Cicely West said.

“Through the end of the month, we will be working on livestreaming our services for the next couple of Saturdays” after March 14, she said. “We’ll just kind of go a couple of weeks at a time and see how things progress.”

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane has canceled all meetings, events and services until April, minister Todd Eklof said.

“This is an unprecedented situation for all of us, including houses of worship,” Eklof said. “We have been through several health crises before, but we’ve never seen anything like this. Knowing what to do is difficult for all of us.”

Eklof said he’s received several messages from members of his congregation thanking him for postponing in-person services.

“Our church includes a lot of folks who are over the age of 80,” he said. “It just seems, without really knowing, we need to follow the advice of the experts and try to curtail the spread. In some ways, it seems as much an ethical and moral decision as it does a precaution.”

In the meantime, Eklof will livestream short services, and will also make past services available online for his congregation.

“The big question is how long this will last,” he said. “Three weeks seems like a safe bet that we will need to be closed at least that long.”

Kristen Kuempel, Lutheran bishop for Eastern Washington andIdaho, said in an email that worship attendance mostly has fallen under the 250-person guideline that Gov. Jay Inslee instituted as a limit for social gatherings this week in the Seattle area.

“We are all uncertain what to do in this situation,” Kuempel wrote in an email to synod members. “We want hard answers, and there are none to be had. We are frightened, we are panicked, and we realize that the place we go for comfort in peace is also potentially unsafe.”

While she acknowledged she does not have the authority to cancel worship services, Kuempel urged church leaders to take steps to avoid contact.

“Try to avoid usage of hymnals, as they are honestly really germy books. You can choose to suspend celebrating communion until things settle down,” she wrote in part. “Finally, do what you think is right to keep yourselves and your congregations safe.”

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