As COVID-19 spreads, Unitarian Universalist congregations begin to adapt. In Washington State, this means shifting to online rather than in-person worship and meetings.
Among its guidelines to slow the spread of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends frequently washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before eating, after using the bathroom, and after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose. (© 2015 AlexRaths/iStock)
In an effort to keep people safe during the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019), Unitarian Universalist congregations in the hard-hit region around Seattle, Washington, have canceled in-person worship services for the near future. They are also rescheduling major events, including an ordination, a building dedication, and a ministerial installation, and have postponed other in-person meetings until further notice.
In other parts of the United States that have been less affected by COVID-19 to date, congregations have put other safety measures in place, including asking members to limit person-to-person contact and encouraging liberal use of hand sanitizer.
As of March 9, thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have reported confirmed cases of COVID-19, with at least twenty-two deaths, mostly among the elderly or other vulnerable populations. King County in Washington State, which includes Seattle, has experienced the nation’s worst outbreak, with at least seventeen deaths as of March 9; two other deaths have been reported in other parts of the state. Worldwide, there are more than 111,362 confirmed cases of the virus and 3,892 deaths, with cases on every continent except Antarctica, according to Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking the outbreak.
The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is closely monitoring the situation by following updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources, and is urging congregations to follow the guidance of local public health organizations and take other steps in order to protect high-risk populations.
“The recent rise of a new strain of coronavirus weighs heavy on our hearts and minds,” UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray wrote to congregations on March 6. She offered ways for congregations to respond to the outbreak, including sharing accurate information about COVID-19 through congregational communication tools; creating ways for congregations and staff to meet remotely rather than in-person, such as streaming worship services online; centering the concerns of people most vulnerable, who may not want to shake hands or have other in-person contact; encouraging good hygiene practices, such as frequent handwashing and use of hand sanitizer; and publicly recognizing fear and concerns about the virus, especially among those most vulnerable to the disease.
The UUA is also encouraging UUs to stand against racism in people’s reactions to the disease, which first emerged in Wuhan, China. “UUs must also speak up against the anti-Asian sentiment that has emerged when people talk about the coronavirus,” Frederick-Gray added. “Language that suggests Asian people are more likely to have the coronavirus is racist. Asian restaurants and Chinatowns are suffering because of coronavirus paranoia, and many people are eating at these establishments in solidarity with their Asian owners and employees.”
The situation is rapidly evolving, and it is unclear what other steps will need to be taken as the outbreak plays out. “If an event needs to be canceled due to the coronavirus, we will communicate that information as soon as possible,” Frederick-Gray wrote. “If you have specific questions about a specific event, please contact your UUA regional team or the event organizers.”
UU consultant Peter Bowden is offering webinars to help congregations deal with the coronavirus, including how to use social media and other tools in lieu of in-person meetings. The UU Ministers Association has created a COVID-19 resource page (requires member login), including a guide to meeting online. The Church of the Larger Fellowship is hosting a live web conversation about online ministry tools on Thursday, March 12, at 11 EDT.
In King County, Washington, most if not all Unitarian Universalist congregations canceled in-person worship services for Sunday, March 8, according to the Rev. Sarah Gibb Millspaugh of the UUA’s Congregational Life Staff in the Pacific West Region. As of March 6, she had not heard of congregations in any other states cancelling services due to the virus, although some have taken precautions such as substituting non-touch greetings for shaking hands.
University Unitarian Church in Seattle is suspending Sunday services and church school until the end of March, according to the Rev. Jon Luopa. It is also encouraging all congregational committees and teams to use Zoom or FaceTime instead of meeting in person. It will be livestreaming its Sunday service so people can watch from home, and it is postponing the dedication of its new building, which was to take place on March 22. There are no known cases of COVID-19 within the congregation, Luopa said.
There are also no diagnosed cases of the virus among members of Edmonds UU Congregation in Edmonds, Washington, which is just north of King County, said the Rev. Eric Kaminetzky. After deciding to close the premises to all but staff, the congregation has canceled in-person worship services and replaced them with an online service, with the support of the UUA and the UUMA, he said. The congregation has created guidelines for the congregation with regard to the virus.
Tahoma UU Congregation in Tacoma, Washington, which is adjacent to King County, offered a “hybrid” service on March 8, with the choir and some others in-person for worship services, said the Rev. Dr. Linda A. Hart. “After today, we will close down completely” for an as-yet-undetermined period of time, and will instead be doing online services via Zoom, Hart said. Like many congregations, Tahoma UU is keeping members apprised on COVID-19 response through its website. The congregation has been practicing “safe contact” since January, Hart said, encouraging people not to shake hands or have other kinds of physical contact during services.
Millspaugh, who met online with Washington State congregational leaders last week to discuss COVID-19 response, is meeting again on March 10 with representatives from Seattle-area congregations. And on March 11, the UUA regional staff will host a webinar for UUs in the Pacific West Region, focusing on preparation for and response to the virus, including how congregations can stay connected with their members via technology as in-person meetings are canceled. “It’s important because people are going through a difficult time,” Millspaugh said. “Especially in a time with so much fear and anxiety and isolation, we can be a bright spot in each other’s day.”
UU World will post additional news stories as more information about congregational and institutional responses to COVID-19 becomes available.
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.