Flu fears affect worship services
Detroit-area houses of worship protect their flocks against flu
BY BILL LAITNER
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
At Grosse Pointe United Methodist Church in Grosse Pointe Farms, the Rev. Judy May switched to sliced pita bread for communion.
At Southfield’s Peace Lutheran Church, just one worshipper still uses the common cup for communion; everyone else has individual, disposable cups of wine or juice.
At Congregation Beth Shalom of Oak Park, Rabbi David Nelson no longer gives the traditional handshake when the service honors a member.
“I sort of wave. And I notice one guy who bumps shoulders: He’s a doctor,” Nelson said.
In Dearborn, a doctor warns about the flu risks of the hajj — the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in November.
With the potential for a flu epidemic in Michigan, health experts say that passing the communion cup, sharing Christian or Jewish bread, packing a mosque for Friday prayers and other cherished rituals can spread the bug.
Those who feel ill are being told to stay away from services, long a haven for the sick.
Still, Associate Minister Jimmy Womack at Plymouth United Church of Christ in Detroit, a medical doctor, said, “Sometimes you have to rely on faith. I say, get your flu shot, then come to church.”
With Michiganders facing a double whammy of H1N1 and the seasonal flu, metro Detroit’s churches, synagogues and mosques are facing decisions about whether to make changes in their religious practices.
The goal is to avoid spreading flu germs at religious gatherings, where strangers often shake hands, hug and drink from a common cup, and where the sick traditionally have found a welcome.
“Now, we’re asking them to stay home” if people feel ill, said George Miller, Oakland County director of health and human services, whose office has posted warnings on its Web site about the special health risks of attending religious services.
“We strongly recommend hand sanitizers for anyone passing” communion wine and bread and “to stop even passing the chalice” by switching to disposable cups, he said.
Dr. Keith Kaye, a professor of medicine at Wayne State University and an infectious disease specialist at the Detroit Medical Center, said: “We aren’t saying shut down religious institutions. But think of these places as a big dormitory. It’s just a great opportunity for bugs to multiply and spread.”
Religious groups are taking heed in different ways.
In Birmingham, Msgr. John Zenz, pastor of Holy Name Catholic Church, said he has told parishioners, “If they want to shake hands, they can. If they want to take the cup of precious blood, they can. But if they feel they have germs, they should not receive wine from the cup” during communion.
Holy Name worshippers still pass the cup from person to person, but the church recently began requiring that communion ministers who carry wafers to worshippers first use hand sanitizers, stationed on a small table near the altar.
At Prince of Peace Catholic Church in West Bloomfield, church leaders have decreed that the communion cup should no longer be passed by worshippers. Only communion ministers may touch it, Archdiocese of Detroit spokesman Joe Kohn said.
He said Catholics have asked the diocese whether churches should switch to individual cups of wine, commonplace in Protestant services. “We’re not going to do that,” he said.
“There’s a liturgical reason” for passing a common cup. “But Catholics believe that the whole body of Christ is present in both the bread and the wine, so you have received communion if you decide to take the bread only,” Kohn said.
The Rev. Susan Dunlap at Dearborn First United Methodist Church canceled a communion service at the peak of swine-flu warnings last spring and might do so again if flu becomes rampant. “People seemed to understand,” she said.
During the service moment called Passing of the Peace, the Rev. Tim Larson of Peace Lutheran Church in Southfield said he plans to announce, particularly during flu season, that if “anyone isn’t feeling well, they don’t have to shake hands or, as a substitute we can bump shoulders.”
Jewish services virtually always provide individual disposable cups for the kosher wine, said Beverly Phillips, assistant director of public relations for the Jewish Community Relations Council in Bloomfield Township.
Health rules from the synagogue
This month, at Young Israel of Southfield, synagogue president Dr. Bruce Newman warned the congregation: Stay home for at least seven days if you are sick, cough into your sleeve — and if you choose to shake hands, don’t touch your face until you’ve washed with soap and water.
“I didn’t say go get the vaccine. That’s a personal decision,” said Newman, who got a seasonal flu shot last month and plans to get the H1N1shot, as well.
Dr. Jimmy Womack, an associate minister at Plymouth United Church of Christ in Detroit, said health and faith sometimes conflict.
“The medical doctor in me says one thing: Eat a balanced diet, avoid contact with sick people. The reverend in me says another: Put your faith in the Lord,” Womack said.
“You’re not going to stop people from shaking hands in church, or hugging. But a lot of people are doing that whole fist-butting thing now. It started as a hip thing — being cool — but I do think it protects you.”
In mosques, Muslim leaders are more vigilant this flu season about cleanliness, said Dr. Hassan Dakroub, a medical director for the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services in Dearborn.
Dakroub said he approves of the decision by metro Detroit Muslims who have canceled plans to make the hajj — the annual Muslim pilgrimage to the Middle East, Nov. 25-30.
“People really crowd together, like a million people in one place, and the risks will be very significant this year” for the H1N1 flu as well as other diseases, he said.
At the mosque: Preaching the dangers
Dawud Walid, assistant imam at Masjid Wali Muhammad in Detroit and head of the Michigan branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the threat of swine flu has made him more aware of keeping safe in public settings, such as mosques. Walid has preached to worshippers during Friday prayers — the most popular weekly gathering for Muslims — about the dangers of swine flu and how they should be aware of it.
Still, many decisions depend on the individual.
A few weeks ago, Marcia Wilkinson was attending Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills when people began shaking hands in the service’s usual offering of peace.
A woman near her turned and apologized for not participating, saying she was getting a cold.
“She put the health issue in front of what other people might think of her,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson, whose job as a community relations director at Birmingham Public Schools is to organize the public awareness campaign for students and parents, said she still shares in the communion chalice at church.
It’s a personal choice.
“It’s a tricky one, especially when you’re reading this stuff all the time” about H1N1 and other illnesses. “I guess that’s what faith’s all about.”