• The spread of coronavirus in various parts of the US comes just weeks before Easter Sunday, an important and well-attended holiday for many churches.
  • Church leaders are stepping up their own rules, including bans on drinking from the shared chalice of wine during the Eucharist ceremony, as well as discouraging handshaking.
  • Some church leaders have even started thinking about what they will do if the government forces them to stop offering masses.
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The new threat of novel coronavirus in the US comes right before one of the busiest times for many Christian churches: Easter Sunday.

The holiday, in which worshippers across Christian denominations mark the resurrection of Jesus, falls on April 12 this year. It’s also one of the most well-attended celebrations in churches and houses of worship across the US. With 65% of US adults (about 160 million) saying they belong to a church, that’s a lot of people potentially headed into communal worship soon.

Religious leaders are taking matters into their own hands to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The Roman Catholic St. Augustine’s Church in Larchmont, New York, is located one town over from New Rochelle, where a 50-year-old man, his family, and his neighbor tested positive for the highly contagious disease. Some of its congregants are from New Rochelle.

In response to growing concerns, the church’s leader sent out a bulletin indicating that there will be no Eucharistic chalice, from which congregants sip wine that they believe is the blood of Christ. Worshippers are also encouraged to avoid shaking each other’s hands during the customary “sign of peace” exchange, and to instead do a “nod of the head.”

This response is emblematic of how other houses of worship are handling the crisis.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago sent out guidance to all its churches on Tuesday with specific measures leaders should take, including that all vessels used in the Mass ceremony be thoroughly washed with soap and hot water. Additionally, they’ve suggested that holy water fonts, or vessels containing water that’s been blessed by a priest, should not be used. Similar guidelines were issued in the Seattle area, where the first coronavirus-related death was reported.

Protestant denominations are also taking note of their congregations’ needs. The Trinity Lutheran Church of Manhattan in New York posted a message on its Facebook page asking worshippers to avoid the traditional dipping of communion bread into wine, as it could spread germs. They’ve also floated the idea of online worship options. 

In Austin, Texas, leaders of the Central Christian Church, which is part of the Disciples of Christ denomination, are having its ministers wear plastic gloves while handing out communion. Its reverend says she plans on continuing the practice for the foreseeable future during the coronavirus scare, according to a Fox News local affiliate.

New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithuania, Georgia, has modified its service to suspend its “greet your neighbor” fellowship moment, according to a local news outlet. Instead of its weekly group therapy on Tuesday, it’s having an emergency meeting to educate members and the community about the virus.

Mostly, congregations across denominations and doctrinal divides are uniting to offer spiritual support where needed. The reverend of Grace Chinese Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, sent personal prayer requests from people in Wuhan to its congregation. Wuhan is the city in China where the virus first broke out.

“As I read those prayer requests, I could not help but let my tears flow,” one of the church’s pastors wrote. “It broke my heart to read of God’s people suffering in China. May God’s light shine its brightest in such dark times.”

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