What can and should churches do in response to an epidemic? What did Jesus do when faced with people no one else would touch?
By Stephen Ko
“Should we cancel or change the way we serve Communion?” The question arose in our weekly staff meeting. Fear from the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak consumed the hearts of our pastors. Our church sits at the intersection of Chinatown and the Lower East Side in New York City. We have a thriving outreach to international Chinese students at nearby New York University. Several days earlier, these overseas students returned from China for their spring semester.
To welcome them back, our church planned a significant fellowship event. Although there were no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in New York City, we canceled the event for fear of contagion. Some of our pastors had experienced the effects of the 2003 SARS epidemic on their communities in China; their worries were legitimate. Due to heightened global coverage of COVID-19, many stateside Chinese Churches scratched Lunar New Year events, prayer meetings, and other ministries. Protecting their congregations and families was a top priority.
Still, the returning Chinese students desired to worship, gather for fellowship, and pray. One student in particular approached me in tears: Would I pray for the health of her family, friends, and neighbors in China? As I laid hands on her and prayed, I realized the duplicity of our church’s pending decisions. How could we say we loved our neighbors yet consider shutting our doors in their time of greatest need? If we believed in a Savior who healed the sick, bestowed sight to the blind, and touched lepers, why did we doubt his power to reign over this coronavirus?
I am a former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention medical officer and global health professor. Now, as a pastor, I believe the church must lead in love rather than be manipulated by stigma. We are called to provide compassion instead of cowering in fear. Churches must trust sound theology, science, and public health instead of succumbing to rumors and hysteria from social media. Denominations, churches, and believers can play a vital role during outbreaks, epidemics, and other diseases.