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Churches fight illness with hand-washing, hand sanitizer

WORTHINGTON -- Children's sermons, speaking Hebrew, disposable cups, hand sanitizers and bumping knuckles are just a few of the ways local churches are fighting the spread of illness during cold and flu season this year.

"Part of the worship service in the morning includes greeting each other and saying 'The peace of Christ be with you' and shaking hands as we do that, but people don't have to do that," said the Rev. LeRoy Christoffels of Christian Reformed Church, Worthington. "They can just speak."

In the past, the Christian Reformed Church has suspended the hand-shaking custom entirely when the flu was making the rounds, but lately, Christoffels said, they've left it up to individuals.

At First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Worthington, people can also choose not to shake hands during the sharing of the peace.

"Most people ignore it and shake hands anyway," said the Rev. Richard Ricker, that church's pastor. "One other thing that has... caught on in a couple of weeks, they'll bang knuckles together. Some of our members are doing that instead of shaking hands."

If there were a big flu outbreak, Ricker added, people would probably restrict their sharing of the peace more.

"We have verbalized that in sharing the peace, if you are not comfortable with (shaking hands), keep your hands behind your back," said the Rev. Tom Braun, St. Matthew's Lutheran Church, Worthington. "And then we do have individual (communion) cups, in addition to the common cup, and primarily the individual cups are used."

Braun expects people to gravitate toward using individual cups more as cold and flu season progresses.

"We're encouraging tons of washing hands," Braun said. "We're saying to kids get into the bathroom (to wash their hands)... it's a lot more trips to the bathroom, let me tell you."

First Baptist Church, Worthington, has put hand washing signs up and placed hand sanitizer all over the church.

"I imagine we'll continue with it and just encourage people to use good sanitation," said the Rev. Jonah Beckermann, First Baptist Church, Worthington.

First and Emmanuel United Methodist Churches, Worthington, have modified the passing of the peace, encouraging the congregations to hold their hands to their sides and share a smile and a friendly word.

"Some will still extend their hands and not feel bad if (the greeting) isn't received, but some will still offer," said the Rev. Gordon Orde of First and Emmanuel United Methodist churches. The two churches also have placed hand sanitizer in the narthex, kitchen, office and restrooms.

At First United Methodist Church, instead of shaking hands, the congregation on the main floor turn to those in the balcony and say "shalom," a Hebrew word meaning "peace" that doubles as both "hello" and "goodbye." Then the balcony returns the greeting to the main floor. The change was well-received, and Orde said people "had great fun" with the new way to share the peace.

People at Westminster Presbyterian extend their left hands rather than their right hands if they don't choose to shake hands.

"And we did a children's message that related to sometimes doing things that are difficult, like getting a shot," said the Rev. James Krapf of Westminster Presbyterian.

Hand sanitizer has become a common accessory at many churches, which are doing their best to keep their congregations healthy -- even if it means fewer people come to church each week.

"We told them to stay home and don't come anymore if they're sick," said the Rev. Larry Brixius of St. Mary's Catholic Church, Worthington.

St. Mary's has also stopped using the common cup during communion and its congregation no longer shakes hands at the beginning of Mass or during the sharing of the peace. During the Lord's Prayer, people raise their hands in praise rather than holding hands.

"That came from the (Winona) Diocese in response to the Minnesota Department of Health," Brixius said, noting the Diocese's statement had been summarized in church bulletins and put up on the bulletin board too.

St. Mary's has hand sanitizers at the front of the sanctuary for the communion ministers, too.

"I wash my hands in antiseptic before I give the sacraments," Ricker said. "We want it to be a life-giving word, not a life-taking one."