Health

Religious communities in Iowa take precautions as coronavirus fears persist

Even before virus had been detected in Iowa, leaders were urging congregations to limit contact

Jim Kennedy offers wine to a congregant Sunday during communion at First Lutheran Church, 1000 Third Ave. SE in Cedar Ra
Jim Kennedy offers wine to a congregant Sunday during communion at First Lutheran Church, 1000 Third Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids. To minimize the spread of germs, the church uses washable, glass cups to serve communion wine and has only one server distribute the communion wafers. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Religious communities gathering for worship this weekend are taking precautions as conversations about the spread of coronavirus continue.

First Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids, for one, is taking communion a little differently and asking attendees to find clever ways of greeting one another — instead of a handshake — to minimize physical contact.

While communion servers typically themselves are served by taking a sip out of a chalice and the congregation is served by intinction — the practice of dipping the bread in the cup — communion for now is served individually in small glass ups.

“It’s a small change, but if it can help or make someone else feel more comfortable, it’s an easy change to make,” said Will Mittelsteadt, communications director at First Lutheran Church.

First Lutheran Church is one of many religious communities in Eastern Iowa taking precautions as influenza persists and the COVID-19 coronavirus spreads in the United States.

Hassan Selim, imam at the Islamic Center, said it is OK for attendees to miss prayer if they feel tired or sick to protect the larger congregation.

He spoke in his sermon last week about how protecting other people’s health is a priority in the Islamic faith.

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“In religious circles we tend to say, ‘Let’s rely on God and God will protect us.’ This is not exactly what Islam teaches us. We should be doing our job and rely on God at the same time.”

According to their faith, Muslims are not allowed to inflict harm on themselves or others. To Selim, this means taking every precaution when it comes to the flu and coronavirus.

“Shaking hands and hugging and exchanging kisses on the cheek is something people use to show affection,” Selim said. “We’re asking people to cut back on this, greet each other by saying ‘Peace be with you,’ and keep it like that until things start to get normal again and we aren’t worried about a virus we don’t know much about.”

Selim also communicates with the congregation through WhatsApp, a messaging system, passing along announcements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and public health officials’ recommendations.

St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids is encouraging healthy practices like frequently washing hands and using hand sanitizer available throughout the church.

A nurse on staff at the church will be leading church leaders in education about COVID-19 later this month.

“Our bishop has encouraged us to be prepared and cautious, but not fearful,” said Jonathan Heifner, associate pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. “We don’t want to be driven by hysteria.”

Church leaders are inviting attendees to find new ways to greet each other, from “a simple bow” to a smile, Heifner said — anything that requires less physical contact.

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A woman who greeted parishioners this past week, usually with a handshake, had her purse in her right hand instead of her left as a subtle sign she would not be shaking hands.

Heifner said it was a simple way to signal she was not available to shake hands, but she was glad to greet people walking through the doors.

St. Paul’s United Methodist Church has communion once a month, and has not yet discussed changing the practice of serving by intinction.

Temple Judah in Cedar Rapids has not changed any of its practices yet because of COVID-19, but temple leaders may have a conversation about best practices at their next board meeting at the end of the month.

Rabbi Todd Thamblum said temple leaders are taking precautions like frequent hand washing, but have not passed down advice to the congregation.

“I imagine if (COVID-19) makes it to Iowa, we will take more precautions and try to limit contact with each other.”

Comments: (319) 368-8664; grace.king@thegazette.com

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