It’s not only schools, rinks and entertainment venues shutting down as Northerners try to keep the coronavirus at bay. Places of worship are also facing a difficult choice: remain open to the faithful in their time of need or close the door to prevent any potential spread.
Jason Brinson, executive director and associate Corps Officer with The Salvation Army Yellowknife, said this past Sunday was the last service until the end of April. He received word on Monday from his senior leadership in Toronto that regular services are suspended until April 30.
“We have been monitoring as a faith community similar to many other folks in the sense that we recognize that gatherings of people can contribute to the passage of disease,” he said over the weekend.
Brinson said there are a number of risk factors in churches – depending on the denomination – but most involve personal contact in various ways. As a result, churches need to consider innovative arrangements to mitigate risk if they continue to operate, which might include leaving an offering plate at the back of the building as opposed to passing it row-by-row, limiting the shaking of hands to smiles and friendly non-contact gestures or limiting the sharing of communal cups during communion.
In his case, he is looking at using online tools to contact congregation members and recording sermons or worship songs for people to engage with.
“We might record our sermon on video and people can tune in or offer a zoom link where people can tune in,” he said.
The Salvation Army also provides sheltering services for the homeless, which serves as a church obligation, but also a function of the community. He said it can be difficult to identify where transient people are coming from and to what extent they are getting the proper health care they require when using shelter services, Brinson said.
“We also have additional services to the community and we have reviewed our pandemic plan and we are taking steps to mitigate where we can address where disease could be potentially transmitted,” he said, noting this ranges from increasing caution on how the church serves food to limiting group travel to rotating staff and management in preparation for workers getting sick.
“We also recognize that people rely on our services, so there is a balance of meeting the needs of the community and meeting the safety of the community and we are doing that as best we can.
“It is really amazing how the virus is impacting our community, country and the world.”
Bishop Jon Hansen, head of the Mackenzie-Fort Smith Roman Catholic diocese, issued a news release on Monday evening stating that he is “suspending the celebration of all Sunday Eucharistic Services in the diocese immediately and dispensing all members of the Catholic faithful from their Sunday obligation until further notice.”
Hansen said the decision was based on an emergency meeting Monday morning with Alberta bishops regarding the potential risk of COVID-19 as well as consultations with the GNWT chief public health officer and in response to increasing threats of the virus in Alberta.
“What we are trying to do is follow the medical science and website of the NWT and keep an eye on the other provinces and what their medical officers are suggesting,” he said. “The difficulty is that it is changing daily and sometimes hourly so we don’t want to overreact due to fear and hysteria. At the same time, we want to be well ahead of the pandemic if we can at all be effective in doing that.
“Worship service is important to our people and we don’t want to deprive of them of that either. It is a difficult process at the moment to decide what is best.
“Monday was a tough morning. Not knowing the right decision is the hardest thing.”
Hansen’s diocese covers the NWT, Cambridge Bay and Kugluktuk, and involves 25 communities in total. In Yellowknife, there are about 1,000 people that attend the St. Patrick Co-Cathedral over three weekend services.
Hansen said his churches are doing the best they can to mitigate risk and that he is most worried about elderly people and those who are most vulnerable in small communities.
People who don’t feel well are asked to stay home and to wash their hands.
“Things like the holy water and the fonts, we have removed,” he said. “We have also made sanitizer available but it is in short supply. We are also keeping the churches sanitized in between services although some are better resources than others in terms of staff. We can’t guarantee it is as sterile as a hospital room.”
Priests throughout the NWT remain important community leaders who contact members of the congregation to offer hope and inspiration, he said.
“Especially in a time of emergency and anxiety,” Hansen said. “Our priests will still be available for sure and vising where possible, especially the sick. So we won’t stop responding but how we handle these larger gatherings is the difficult point.”
Islamic Centre of Yellowknife
Nazim Awan, spokesperson for the Islamic Centre of Yellowknife, said leading members at his place of worship made the decision “with a heavy heart” late last week to suspend Friday congregational prayers and Halaqa or youth Islamic study circles on Saturdays and Sundays for the time being.
For the time being, the centre is open for people wanting to use it for daily five prayers, but mostly people have been encouraged to fulfill daily prayer obligations day at home.
“After the was coronavirus was reported, we were monitoring what was happening mostly across Canada and overseas so what we decided based on Islamic principle is that it is not safe for people that are healthy and people who don’t know if they have coronavirus,” he said, noting it is the best decision because it is a very quickly evolving situation. “If a person is infected, a person may not know and may be infecting other people.
“So what we did was we immediately last Friday cancelled Friday prayers and we also have immediately cancelled Halaqa where we did Koran and the life of the Prophet and his teachings.”
Awan said similar to Christian churches, Friday night services can involve much public contact, including embracing, kissing in greeting, holding hands and sharing carpet spaces for prayer.
The Islamic Centre of Yellowknife is in the process of constructing a new worship space at the corner of 50 Avenue and 49 Avenue, and a temporary locations has been set up in a unit at the Sam’s Monkey Tree plaza. This is largely because it can accommodate large gatherings of about 100 worshippers, Awan said.
He said this is especially needed as Ramadan is approaching between April 24 and May 23 and extra and longer prayers are required – meaning an increase of people in close proximity.
Awan said there were some disappointed members of his faith community in having to pray at home, however the centre is reminding members that Islamic teachings do provide for leaders to call on the need for self-isolation when it comes to public health risks – stretching back to the life of the Prophet Mohammad.