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The H1N1 outbreak has left no part of our lives untouched. From schools, businesses and public gatherings, how we interact with one another has really changed. While we may see these things on a fairly regular basis during our day-to-day work (e.g., hand sanitizer at the front desks of offices, stores and schools; sneezing into our sleeves, etc.), I found myself surprised at my church, Heritage Presbyterian in Alexandria, VA when our Chaplain, Arnie Porter, at the outset of the service offered a very polite, humble plea to the congregation – please refrain from hand shaking and if you’re sick, please stay home.

In a church that takes great pride in friendly greetings, and people getting up from their seats to shake hands with members and visitors alike, his kindly put words were a shocking reminder that there is no place immune from the H1N1 or other flu viruses. The numbers associated with H1N1 are no joke, and every person and place has a responsibility to do their part to stop its further spread. That includes places of worship.

I’ve heard a lot of different messages from the churches I’ve attended but being told to not shake hands and to stay home were a bit surprising. Yet, it was the right message to hear and practice. I thought how Chaplain Porter explained the situation was as kind and polite as it possibly could be. His words are below.

Flu Advice, Chaplain Arnie Porter
As we head into the cold and flu season, the church is reviewing what we can do to promote a healthy environment. Oddly enough, those most severely affected are children and young adults. So while the elderly among us, (and you know who you are) may not be in as much danger, we all need to do whatever we can to protect each other. What can you do? Well, if you are sick, stay home. To be honest, I hate to give that advice. I so love to see people in church that I would like to have sick people arrive in an ambulance, crawl through the door and lie down in their pew, just to fill the church. But if we did that, it would be the hospital that would be filled, not the church. So to protect the health of our children and young people, if not our own health, let’s stay home when we don’t feel well. Another thing we can do is wash our hands before coming here so we won’t contaminate the church; and wash our hands when we get home so the church won’t contaminate us.

What else can you do during the flu season? We can and should limit handshaking. That brings us to the ritual of Passing the Peace, when we all shake hands with each other — clearly not a safe practice during flu season. Some churches have simply abolished Passing the Peace. We didn’t want to do that because we enjoy blessing and being blessed by our brothers and sisters. Many churches have been Passing the Peace for two thousand years. At Heritage Church, which never rushes into anything, we have only been Passing the Peace for about ten years. Bob Curry, bless his heart, started us doing this one Sunday. We all ran about (some of you may remember) as though we were seeking and shaking hands with long-lost relatives. It was a small riot. Order (so precious to Presbyterians) was difficult to restore. But we finally got it right, and we want to continue getting it right. So we suggest we don’t shake hands for a little while. But we will say the ancient words to each other, with eye contact, often using names, perhaps with a nod, perhaps a touch on a shoulder or arm.

Our goal is to pass the peace, not the flu, in a time of real danger. What you do in the privacy of the Fellowship Hall is clearly your business, but it might be wise to postpone shaking hands there too.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More