Humans crowd closely together in houses of worship -- and it’s supposed to be that way. People greet each other with hugs and shaking hands; they pray in close proximity and, in some Christian communities, drink from the same cup and share the same bread.
However, with infectious disease, this normally positive aspect of faith can have unintended consequences.
As the Ebola virus ravages communities in West Africa, religious centers in the region have made changes to their worship practices. Heeding reports that the virus is spread by bodily fluids, some churches are no longer placing the communion bread directly into parishioners' mouths. Others are asking members to refrain from shaking hands as a ceremonial sign of peace.
It might be too early for those kinds of precautions in America as there have been only three confirmed cases on U.S. soil. However, many Americans are becoming increasingly nervous about Ebola.
Schools across the country are already taking precautions, with several in Ohio and Texas canceling classes, and travel bans are being debated in Congress.
So what are America’s biggest religious organizations doing to educate and prepare congregations -- both physically and spiritually -- about Ebola?
Not much, yet -- at least on a national level.
While many of the major American denominations contacted by The Huffington Post had plans in place for ministering overseas, most have not yet come up with a strategy for dealing with the presence of the Ebola virus in the United State. That includes the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Islamic Circle of North America, the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches-USA, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the United Methodist Church.
Some faith leaders said they are afraid of causing unnecessary fear among believers.
“We don’t want to scare the community,” Naeem Baig, executive director of the Islamic Circle of North America, told HuffPost. “Right now, we’re not going to make any statements.”
Bishop Warner Brown, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, put it this way:
Ebola is a major health crisis that's primarily localized in West Africa. We are addressing the situation in Africa in various ways and we hold all those affected in our prayers. In the U.S., we understand that people are concerned because of the cases that have occurred in Texas. We urge churches to follow the guidance of public health officials and should a more specific response for churches be warranted, we will address it at that time.
The United Church of Christ was the only denomination that sent a comprehensive statement, suggesting it was thinking deeply about how to respond to the virus in America. The UCC asked its churches to "get the facts" and warned against "fueling fires of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment."
Barbara T. Baylor, UCC Policy Advocate for Health and Wholeness Issues, told HuffPost:
While the news is devastating, now is the time for people of faith to take action by becoming familiar with the facts of the disease to reduce and reject misinformation, being a bridge for peace and calm and leading the banner to show grace and mercy for those with the disease and those who are trying to find the best solutions for this crisis. God’s got the whole world in God’s hands. We have painfully learned from the past not to rush to judgment and create more suffering by isolating and stigmatizing individuals. We cannot afford to separate ourselves and alienate each other at a time when we must all embrace Jesus’ hope for humanity – resting in God’s strength.
The UCC's response highlights the resources within religions that help communities find strength to face the unknown. As important gathering places, religious centers can in fact play a vital role in sharing information about Ebola, calming fears, and, if the time comes, stopping the physical spread of the disease.
Jim Naughton, the Editor in Chief of Episcopal Cafe, said that individual congregations and dioceses have an important pastoral responsibility when it comes to outbreaks.
“When people are very concerned, you don’t want to dismiss what they’re afraid of,” Naughton told HuffPost. “On the other hand, it’s important to respond to those fears with accurate information about how Ebola is actually transmitted.”
According to Pritish Tosh, an infectious disease physician and researcher at the Mayo Clinic, Ebola can only be spread after direct contact with the blood or bodily fluids of someone who is already ill with the virus. Tosh believes that by the time someone is highly contagious, they would likely feel too sick to be participating in community activities.
"A lot of these societal changes are based on fear rather than facts," Tosh said. "It’s important that we remain level-headed about the real risks and knowing how the virus really spreads."
Still, on a local level, some churches are starting to change their rituals in response to the perceived threat of Ebola.
The Catholic dioceses of Fort Worth and Las Vegas have both stopped offering wine during the Eucharist. According to the diocese in Las Vegas, the changes are being made “out of an abundance of caution.”
“Due to information provided by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the Diocese has recommended briefly limiting the distribution of the Eucharist to only the Host during this time of caution,” the diocese said in a statement to HuffPost.
The Diocese of Fort Worth issued the following guidelines, according to Religion News Service:
- Share the “Sign of Peace” without touching or kissing, perhaps with a smile, or “meaningful eye contact” or “a bow of the head.”
- Priests should use an alcohol-based solution on their hands before and after distributing Holy Communion.
- Priests should not distribute Holy Communion if they feel ill, and should discourage parishioners who feel sick from coming to church.
- Restrictions like these are common during flu season among churches that offer communion, RNS reports.
“It’s the same guidelines we have used in past years,” Pat Svacina, communications director for the Diocese of Fort Worth, told RNS. “This is just a normal thing. There is no panic whatsoever.”
Some cautious residents of Dallas are reportedly trying their best to avoid Vickery Meadows, the ethnically diverse community in Dallas where Liberian immigrant Eric Duncan first fell ill with the disease. Pastor Brent Barry, of the local North Park Presbyterian Church, said that people have even stopped volunteering for important non-profits in the community.
Barry is leading an interfaith coalition of churches and temples that have pledged to stand by the people of Vickery Meadows. After his church got involved, the pastor said the vacant volunteer spots are filling up quickly.
"What people need most is for the church to reach out to them," Barry told HuffPost. "To be a voice of hope and calm and trust in the face of fear and stigmatization. People of faith should have a different response."
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reportedly asking faith communities to assist in preventing the spread of Ebola in the U.S. during a conference call on Saturday, RNS reports.
Then, there is the deeper, more personal question that often bubbles up in human hearts whenever natural disasters occur: how could a good God cause his people to suffer?
Religion has answers for this, too.
Naeem Baig, of ICNA, said that suffering is a test -- for the people experiencing it and for people who are looking in from the outside.
“We know there are diseases, but we also know that any disease does not come without a cure, because God is fair and God is just,” Baig said. “The real question is, what can the rest of the people in the world do to alleviate suffering, what are we doing to help?”
Compassion was the one of the only things on Texas Pastor George Mason’s mind when he learned that one of his church members, Louise Troh, was marrying Duncan, the Liberian man who later became the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S. Troh and her family were placed into quarantine because Duncan had fallen ill in her apartment.
But Mason said he instinctively sensed that “the role of a pastor is to be present.”
In a HuffPost blog, Mason wrote:
Every day, each of us faces decisions about whether to exclude or include, whether to remove ourselves from other people or to draw closer to other people. How we make those decisions often turns on how we have been taught … The lesson we all need to learn now is another biblical teaching: We are, in fact, our brother's keeper.