Magazines 2009 Nov - Dec The Pandemic Challenge

The Pandemic Challenge

02 November 2009 By Doris Fleck

How to best prepare your church for the worst situation. Includes resources (updated in 2020) to prepare your church, a pandemic prep checklist, and more.

Churches have a crucial role to play in the event of a pandemic. The H1N1 virus is reminding us that our role might come sooner rather than later. Some Canadian churches are already taking action.

Canadians are known for being friendly. Sunday worship services across the country are no exception. People greet each other with handshakes and hugs. Many congregations “pass the peace.” Christians celebrate the Lord’s Supper by breaking bread together and many drink from a common cup.

But this fall, parishioners have noticed subtle changes in the way they gather. Hand sanitizers are springing up everywhere. People are starting to nod or wave “hello.” At least one congregation is considering transforming how to they do communion by switching from a common chalice to tiny, individual cups

When H1N1, a new strain of the influenza A virus (formerly known as Swine Flu), caused a global outbreak this spring, faith communities began taking preventative measures.

But is this enough?

Not according to Tim Purvis. The minister of Westview Presbyterian Church in Toronto wants to see churches across the country prepare to be on “the front lines” if a virulent outbreak of H1N1 occurs this winter.

Although most people who get H1N1 don’t die, as of the end of September there have been 425,000 cases worldwide and over 4,600 deaths since the flu virus first appeared in Mexico this past March. In Canada, just over 12,000 cases have been confirmed, with 78 deaths.

But the World Health Organization (WHO) is concerned that a second wave with a more virulent strain could soon attack. By mid-September two Canadians were diagnosed with a form of H1N1 resistant to the anti-viral drug, Tamiflu. And a recent Canadian study cited in the Calgary Herald suggested that seasonal flu vaccinations could actually put people at greater risk of contracting H1N1. In the worst-case scenario, WHO estimates that one-third of the six billion people on Earth could become infected.

Tim Purvis sits on the National Advisory Group for Emergency Planning (NAGEP), an ecumenical group that works under the Faith and Witness Commission of the Canadian Council of Churches.

NAGEP, which started in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre, enables churches to connect with government groups involved in emergency response.

Purvis says the Church has a crucial role to play in the event of a pandemic or natural disaster. Many congregations have kitchens and volunteer staff that can prepare meals for the sick. Church buildings can be used as temporary shelters and congregational phone lists can help to communicate with seniors and shut-ins. Most importantly, members can provide spiritual care to those who suffer loss.

Citing a major study done in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Purvis says, “The report concluded that the devastated areas served by churches and volunteer community organizations showed the greatest resilience or capacity to respond to and recover from the disaster.”

The report also stated that in some communities, faith-based groups “were the only ones to provide shelter, food, or medical services for days or even weeks.”

When this report was revealed this past February at a joint round table discussion between the government agencies dealing with disaster response and NAGEP, it didn’t surprise Janet Plenert.

“If you want to touch society, then what are the networks that cross all of society? The church would be one of them,” says the director of Mennonite Church Canada Witness. “So, if the government can link forces with the church, you suddenly have a network in every community, every town and every city that crosses race and crosses economic lines.”

Two years ago, Plenert began building a framework for church response in a pandemic when there was no sign of one in the forecast. She says this gave her great empathy for Noah. Her children even teased her by saying, “What kind of pandemic are you trying to create?”

But at the round table in February, Plenert was vindicated. For the first time, the Canadian government recognized that “if they could mobilize church leaders to mobilize their people, they would reach the country much more effectively than through any other single means.”

This summer, Mennonite Church Canada developed three resource booklets to teach churches the biblical basis for disaster preparation. They include historical stories of what the church has done in the past when faced by a similar crisis.

Plenert says the story of Bishop Cyprian is an example for the Church today. A plague struck the Roman Empire in 165 AD, a time when the Church was in its infancy. In the city of Carthage, people were throwing the bodies of the dead and even those not-quite-dead into the streets and fleeing in terror. But Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, gathered his congregation and set them to burying the dead and nursing the sick at the risk of their lives. They not only saved the city from destruction and desolation, Plenert says, but gave credibility to a young Church as a serious faith movement.

Marg Pollon is a modern-day version of these early-Church Christians – ready to risk her life in the service of Christian compassion to others.

Pollon founded Bridges of Love Ministries five years ago to encourage local churches to make connections to their community. With her background as a medical technologist and four years of emergency management experience, Pollon is building on these church/community connections by coordinating the churches in Calgary to commit to an action plan.

“Trying to work at a grassroots level is a huge undertaking,” Pollon says. “The key to success for this initiative is the faith and public sectors coming together to make a greater impact.”

With Calgary hospitals barely able to cope with day-to-day emergencies, adding even a few hundred people with respiratory distress due to H1N1 would cripple the system. By helping create the Regional Faith Community Emergency Preparedness Coalition, Pollon has linked local churches with Calgary’s Emergency Management Agency so that Christians will be part of the primary response to any disaster.

Seeing the Christian community work hand-in-hand with the local health authorities “builds further bridges of trust and love between the various agencies,” Pollon says. “I have experienced it and the walls are coming down.”

Over 25 Calgary churches have completed assessment forms identifying resources they can provide. Key churches have been designated as quadrant leaders with a downward chain of command for participating churches in their area. Through ongoing information sessions in each quadrant, and with congregations distributing door hangers containing vital emergency phone numbers as well as contact information for local churches, Pollon sees more bridges of love built between church and community.

Pollon has been excited to see neighboring churches work together. If one congregation closes their building to be used to house the sick, the other congregation would welcome these members to use their worship facility, she says.

“I don’t want people to just focus on the pandemic because then it will be another program,” Pollon says. “The real reason for this is to form connections with communities. This is an opportunity for the churches to be connected forever.”

Doris Fleck of Calgary is a contributing writer at Faith Today. See a 2006 Faith Today article on this topic at

Resources to prepare your church

Pandemic prep checklist

  • Encourage protective practices like hand washing, alternative greetings, coughing into sleeve and staying home if infectious.
  • Ensure awareness of appropriate custodial cleaning for preventing the spread of infectious diseases including frequency of cleaning and use of anti-viral and anti-bacterial cleaning agents.
  • Update church member contact list and identify people with special needs like single parents, seniors or the disabled.
  • Assess your congregation’s resources and create a list of membership skills such as nurses, doctors and emergency care workers.
  • Change church worship practices if they compromise the health of members.
  • Develop a community communication strategy with church members.
  • Contact neighbouring churches to explore ways of collaboration in case of severe pandemic.
  • Form connections with local health authorities and work with them to develop a plan involving your congregation in a disaster response.
  • Prepare a list of services in your neighborhood that can be accessed by those you will be caring for. Include addresses, phone numbers, and type of services offered.
  • Create pamphlets outlining how your church is going to respond to a pandemic and distribute them in the community. Suggest ways in which the church could assist the neighbourhood in the event of a pandemic. -DF

How Christian parents can be a witness

Some Christian parents have discovered that the opportunity to be a witness in the school system comes at unexpected times, even in the middle of a health scare like the H1N1 virus. It can be as simple as following the rules and guidelines suggested by Health Canada and the individual school. Find out how your school is coping with the potential threat and what emergency plan it has in place. Offer to get involved and be a supportive presence to the administration in the middle of a stressful time. If your children exhibit symptoms, keep them at home and take them to the doctor immediately instead of sending them to class. Encourage your church to adapt some of the guidelines in this article and let your child’s school know the local Christian community is on board.  – Karen Stiller