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Passing the peace instead of germs

Passing the peace instead of germs


Pass the peace, not a virus.

The tradition in many United Methodist churches of greeting fellow parishioners with a handshake or a hug is giving way to caution because of current events.

Churches "seem to be forgoing the passing of the peace," the Southeast District Superintendent Rev. Dr. Cynthia D. Weems said.

"One practice I have seen is that people are asked to look intentionally at each other (no touching) and offer a 'Peace of the Lord' verbally. Due to the significance of making eye contact, this can often be experienced as more sincere than a hug or handshake."

Florida Resident Bishop Ken Carter on Monday recommended that all United Methodist churches in the state cancel public worship services in favor of on-line messages through the end of March, but it's best to be cautious when services start again.

The risk of infection from COVID-19, known as the Coronavirus, has forced everyone to think in new and creative ways. And no one did it better than members of the Merge youth program at Tampa's Hyde Park United Methodist Church.

Members were preparing for their annual Youth Sunday observance when news of the pandemic added an item to their agenda. Besides sharing their perspectives on the Bible, their feelings, and church happenings, they had an opportunity to offer a new approach to saying hello.

"Starting today, and at least for the next several weeks, we are inviting you to practice some ways to pass the peace of Christ to those around you that don't involve physical touch," 16-year-old Madelyn deVega said.

The congregation roared in laughter as Jack Morantes, 17, then pantomimed her suggestions. This commentary about not touching tickled more than a few funny bones.

Of course, this Youth Sunday sermon came seven days before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised on March 15 against gatherings of 50 people or more for the next eight weeks, forcing churches to make decisions about what to do.

Online services could become the norm for the foreseeable future. But for a few minutes, Hyde Park members were able to laugh a little about their predicament passing the peace.

Several options deVega suggested were familiar, such as The Wave, The Thumbs Up, and The Peace Sign.

Others were less traditional, including The Point and Click, which is making a pistol with your fingers. There was the Vulcan Do All Things Through Christ.

"Live long and prosper in Christ," Morantes said as he made Mr. Spock's Vulcan salute from the Star Trek television series.

Their favorite was the Last Whatsupper.

"Whazzup?" Morantes asked the congregation.)

Morantes and deVega playfully discouraged congregants from practicing The Chomp or The Tomahawk Chop – staples of the athletic teams at the University of Florida and Florida State.

"Too polarizing," Morantes said as he demonstrated both gestures.

The humor had a serious message.

"We hope this has been a helpful way to stay healthy while still staying connected during this cold and flu season," deVega said as she invited church members to pass the peace without transferring germs.

The students take this annual responsibility seriously. Members of Merge, led by youth director Emily Kuche and assistant youth director Mac Charalambous, are accustomed to having current events influence their message.

Last year's Youth Sunday was also timely as they showed their support for the LGBTQ community shortly after a related debate at the General Conference in St. Louis.

Sunday services often coincide with traumatic events in society. Sometimes everyone is feeling the same way about an issue, such as a natural disaster. Sometimes they are divided, as we see with some denominational news or political debates.

Pastoral words, pastoral guidance, and comfort often help members who feel that need.

"That happens very regularly," deVega said, citing the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Vir., that happened on a Saturday in August 2017. One day later, the demonstrations were top of mind for church members, so deVega changed his sermon at the last minute to reflect on what had occurred.

The Florida United Methodist Conference updates members regarding news related to the Coronavirus on its website.

Churches are responding.

Cathy Moore Rangeo, head usher at Fleming Island UMC in the Jacksonville area, said members are taking extra precautions.

Rangeo enjoys greeting people but said she would not shake their hands. Having an immune system compromised by cancer, she also would continue to touch people as little as possible when distributing communion.

Hand sanitizer is always on hand for that. Since you can't look at someone and tell right away that they are sick or have a compromised immune system, Rangeo agreed that it's best to keep your hands off of other people.

"And off your (own) face," she said.

Fleming Island has many elderly members who may not feel comfortable attending live services, but – like many churches - they can take advantage of online services.

Grace UMC in Venice was encouraging congregants to do the following: the peace sign, fist bumps, slight head bumps, head nodding, elbow bumps and wrapping your arms around yourself to simulate hugs with others,

Meanwhile, passing the peace will not be an issue at Fleming Island UMC when the sanctuary services resume.

"We don't pass the peace anymore," Rangeo said. "I don't know why they stopped it, but right now, that's a good thing."

--Ed Scott is a freelance writer in Venice.

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