From Bishop Laurie to the Clergy and Laity of the Iowa Annual Conference:
I want to thank you for your faithfulness over these last months as we have had to learn a new way of being the church as a result of COVID-19. We have now entered a new phase where we are considering re-entry plans for in-person worship in our local churches. One of the questions we hear often is whether we have to wear masks to worship.
Rev. Dr. Lanette Plambeck, who is our Director of Clergy and Leadership Excellence and leads our COVID-19 Response Team, has written an important article called, “To Mask Or Not To Mask: That is the Question.” I commend Dr. Plambeck’s article to you as we continue to put the safety of our most vulnerable people at the forefront of our coronavirus response.
Bishop Laurie Haller
By: Rev. Dr. Lanette Plambeck
With the questions regarding reentry and mask-wearing, Bishop Laurie and I thought it would be helpful to share with you what is influencing our decision-making process in the Iowa Conference. The purpose of this letter is to respond to four questions local church leadership is wrestling with around to mask or not to mask:
Our response is based on learnings from the medical webinars we are attending for the Crisis Response Team which is guiding the Iowa Conference reentry process and recommendations. These webinars are hosted by medical, epidemiological, and HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) professionals. One primary area they are currently aligned in is the importance of mask-wearing during the pandemic.
While medical-grade masks can be worn to protect the wearer from getting infected, unless there is a medical reason to do so, we ask that you do not use N95 or surgical masks as there is a critical shortage of these items for our healthcare workers and first responders. Those who are high risk may be advised by their physician to wear a medical-grade mask.
You may see several medical reports and epidemiologist updates on how cloth masks and non-medical grade masks can be worn to protect others from being infected by the wearer. When we talk about mask-wearing at church gatherings large and small, the mask donning is to prevent transmission to others, and this is their most important use whether in churches or your larger community. If we lower the likelihood of one person infecting another, we are actively engaged in the reduction of transmission.
When you are wearing a mask, your breath works in partnership with your cloth mask to trap a large number of these aerosols in the fabric, stopping the aerosols that carry the virus from being released into the air. When aerosols are in the air, they are so minuscule that when we inhale the fabric itself cannot prevent the Covid19 virus from getting through the fabric. Wearing a mask lowers the number of aerosols emitted into the air by the one exhaling who can unknowingly be an asymptomatic carrier or in the early stages of the disease. Wearing a fabric or non-medical grade mask is about caring for the other; when another wears a mask it is their care for you.
“Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God.” 1 John 4:7 CEB
These words, along with the Great Commandment, along with many other words of scripture call us to love and care for one another, even at the expense of our personal preferences or comfort. From the beginning of the Church, this has been understood as the duty of every Christian. This responsibility is important for us to remember amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The act of wearing a mask, combined with maintaining appropriate distance, is an act of love and Christian care. We wear masks not to protect ourselves, but to protect others in the event we might have contracted the virus. None of us would want to expose one of our family members when we can take precautions to prevent it. Even more so, we would not want to jeopardize the members of our congregations who are at greatest risk of the virus. This is a minor inconvenience when placed next to the sacrifice of Jesus, our Lord.
As we have listened in on the debate on wearing or not wearing masks, the objections to wearing masks tend to be more ideological and emotional than scientifically driven. To not get caught in a debate that divides more than unites, we have leaned into what mask-wearing can mean as a spiritual practice in this unprecedented time of the pandemic.
As a spiritual practice, to don a mask is to proclaim love of neighbor, especially our most vulnerable neighbors. In Matthew 25, Jesus implores us to care for “the least of these” and when we do so, we are caring for him.
Wearing a mask has also become a Micah 6 moment. By humbling oneself and even risking critique or ridiculed by others, one can bear up under people’s stares or remarks knowing their mask has become an outward and visible sign of God’s grace working in and through us. Many have found that choosing to wear a mask as a spiritual practice has deepened their faith, has improved their listening, and increased their commitment to their neighbors during this time of the pandemic.
Additionally, wearing a mask is a form of mercy and action in that since we do not know if we are asymptomatic or in early stages of the virus and since we do not know if those we are around will go home to people who are going through chemotherapy, are immunocompromised or are otherwise medically vulnerable, one’s choice to wear a mask is a way of extending care to those sheltering at home. We hope and pray for the time when wearing protective face masks is no longer necessary. But we also hope that these Matthew 25 and Micah 6 lessons God is teaching us through this practice of mask-wearing remain an integral part of our life of faith in the Iowa Conference.
When I think of the “have faith not fear” chant, I think of the many times we read the words, “Do not fear” in Scripture. But I do not think mask-wearing is about fear over faith; it is more about loving our neighbor. The parable of the Good Samaritan comes to my mind in this question. This parable is about compassion and sacrifice. It is about the willingness of the Samaritan to go out of his way and do what others would not; a willingness to give of his resources to care for another; a willingness to sacrifice his own immediate needs and preferences to consider the good he can do immediately before him.
Hebrew Bible Scholar, Vanessa Lovelace defines midrash as "a Jewish mode of interpretation that not only engages the words of the text, behind the text, and beyond the text, but also focuses on each letter, and the words left unsaid by each line."
In a Midrash Moment, one of our Ministry Directors turned to the story of the Good Samaritan and offered one group of folks a simple test: “Everybody wear a mask for 5 minutes. Now, remove them. Pass your mask down one person. And now put on your neighbors mask.”
There were looks of discomfort and hesitation.
The Director said, “We cannot see what we cannot see. We do not know what we do not know. If you are not comfortable wearing your neighbors mask, you should be as uncomfortable breathing their air.
Also, were any of you worried about passing your mask to your friend, because you might have COVID-19, but don’t yet know it? Then protect your friend and ask them to not put on your mask.”
They continued with the words, “To best protect those around you, you should be committed to wearing a mask every time you gather in public spaces. As we walk down the street, enter the public square, or come to church, we can easily forget that we are called to be God’s witnesses in the world. Wearing masks is one way of being a witness and looking after one another.’
At that moment in the meeting, as people consider their own and their neighbor’s mask, one of the older gents said, "I guess we are wearing masks people."
To the people of the Iowa Conference, I commend to you the question of Jesus raised in this parable in this Midrash retelling of the Good Samaritan story, “How can we be a neighbor to one who could become a victim of this unseen threat?”
Those in the room replied, “Be like the ones who show mercy and wear a mask.” Jesus told them, “Go and do likewise.”
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