By JOHN FORTMEYER
What one national TV anchor termed the “news story of our lifetimes” occurred this past month with such overwhelming speed that the world now seems entirely upended.
And at the time of this report, it appears everyday life could be permanently altered for billions of people, including all Americans and certainly the Christian community.
Indeed, a single news story can’t begin to adequately sum up the impacts wrought by COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that began only months ago in China and has since bloomed into a worldwide pandemic. What looks at times to be the plot of a B-grade movie is instead reality, but a surreal version.
Everything is different. Much of the world is in “lockdown,” with 3 billion people confined to their homes in an attempt to “flatten the curve” of the virus’s all-too-upward spread. The financial world is in a complete tizzy, with the stock market seeing both historic gains and plunges in a dizzying roller coaster pattern from day to day.
Millions are laid off from their jobs as a recession — if not worse — looms. Nationally, all professional sports events have been halted. Under orders by the governors of both Oregon and Washington, all churches, schools, colleges and the vast majority of businesses are closed until further notice. When not glued to news reports on the daily growing tally of virus cases and deaths, families desperately seek creative ways to avoid going crazy from cabin fever in their own households.
In the very limited outside interaction allowed for recreation or for shopping at groceries, pharmacies or take-out eateries, people are now mandated to constantly practice “social distancing” — maintaining a 6-foot gap between individuals to prevent virus spread. In much of the nation, gatherings of more than 10 persons are prohibited.
Cities have taken on the aura of ghost towns as their confined residents depend hugely on the Internet for social interaction. Those businesses still operating have much of their staffs working remotely from home.
Here is a very brief attempt at summarizing how hugely this region’s Christian community has been affected:
When initial orders prohibited gatherings of 250 or more persons, the larger congregations were the most immediately affected. Then days later, as limits of no more than 10 persons were issued, churches of all sizes stopped gathering. Countless churches have turned to live streaming of their services. March 22 was the first Sunday where all churches everywhere were shuttered.
But even before that, churches made dramatic changes in worship. Any part of a service that carried a potential for droplet sharing, such as communion or offering plates, was halted. High-risk groups such as senior citizens or those with health conditions were urged to stay home. Extensive sanitation measures for buildings became a high priority.
Living Hope Church in Vancouver, Wash. received considerable media attention for conducting a drive-in worship service in the large parking lot in front of their building, a former Kmart store.
After the University of Washington in Seattle in early March became the first school in the nation to announce it was canceling all in-person classes and moving to online instruction, the nearby Christian school Seattle Pacific University quickly followed suit. Within days the same was decided by Oregon’s Christian schools, including George Fox, Corban, Warner Pacific, Northwest Christian and Multnomah universities and the Northwest University Oregon program near Salem and New Hope Christian College. Off-campus study or missions trips were canceled. Eventually, Oregon’s governor ordered all institutions of higher education closed.
On March 22, George Fox announced that one of its traditional undergraduate students on the Newberg campus tested positive for COVID-19. The school launched a vigorous effort to rid campus buildings of the virus.
K-12 Christian Schools
Governors of both states announced that all K-12 schools — public or private — must close. While initial closure was for about two weeks, that later was extended to late April. Even before the closures, the dozens of Christian schools in this newspaper’s circulation area were rapidly winding down activities. For example, Portland Christian Schools canceled all assemblies, chapels, off-campus field trips and other events, and was denying audience admission at athletic events.
Since then, many of the schools have switched to online instruction. But whether in-person classes would resume before summer remained uncertain at press time.
Canceled Christian Events
Hundreds of Christian events that were to take place during late March and early April were canceled or postponed in this region because of the prohibition on crowds gathering. Among the major ones were:the Christian Youth Summit in Bend, the InCourage Gathering women’s event in Tualatin, the Ignite Hope Gala for Road to Hope maternity home in Washington County, The Roadshow 2020 concert in Salem, the Bow the Knee musical drama in Vancouver, Wash., the Community-wide Praise and Worship sponsored by Mid-Valley Women of Christ in Corvallis, the Newberg/Dundee Mayors’ Prayer Breakfast, the 2020 Freedom Rally sponsored by Oregon Liberty Alliance in Portland, the Iron Sharpens Iron men’s conference in McMinnville, Good Friday Breakfasts sponsored by local YMCAs in both Portland and Salem, and, for the first time in its 83-year history, the Bald Peak Easter Sunrise Service between Newberg and Hillsboro. At press time, remaining April and May events are tentative at best.
The call for social distancing meant particular challenges for the Christian mission organizations that serve the needy and homeless in this region, because they already house hundreds and could wind up with many more.
“The challenges this presents with 400 overnight guests who depend on the Eugene Mission for shelter is very real,” said Sheryl Balthrop, executive director. “We are setting up additional dormitory space by re-purposing the classroom and other spaces to create a dedicated, separate sleeping area should an emergency arise.”
At Portland Rescue Mission, the agency faced sharply escalating costs and fewer donated supplies. Executive Director Eric Bauer issued a call for protective equipment such as masks, gloves and sanitation stations as well as the mission’s ongoing basic needs for food and clothing items.
The pandemic had an immediate impact on planned outreaches by Oregon-based evangelistic groups, including the Portland-based Luis Palau Association and the Salem-based Reid Saunders Association.
The Saunders team announced that it was forced to postpone and reschedule outreach trips to the Holy Land and Naples, Italy. Both are now set to take place in the spring of 2021.
The Palau team had developed a packed schedule for this year of evangelistic campaigns both in the U.S. and abroad, including Florida, Germany, England, France, New Mexico, Guatemala, Malawi and Argentina. But the status of all those is now uncertain, said Kevin Palau, the association’s president.
“What this outbreak means for each of these festivals, we don’t fully know,” he said. “We are not unfamiliar with difficult situations. For more than 60 years our team has actively engaged in evangelism across the globe. In the midst of the work, we have faced epidemics, civil war, terrorist activity, natural disasters and the like. Yet none, at least in my memory, have been as widespread and far-reaching as this … Whatever the days ahead hold for us, we are not afraid … God is faithful. We see it throughout Scripture. It continues to be true today.”
Nursing and Retirement Homes
The first COVID-19 case in the U.S. occurred in a Kirkland, Wash., nursing home, and thus any such facility became an immediate focus on preventing virus spread.
For example, at Friendsview Retirement Community in Newberg, entry is now restricted to staff, medical personnel, and family and friends of residents who are either on hospice care or whose emotional health calls for visitors.
Similarly, Mennonite Village in Albany is allowing visits to its care areas only for certain compassionate care situations, such as an end-of-life situation.
In response to the crisis, Portland-area Christian leaders on March 25 launched a OnePDX online prayer event from noon to 12:30 p.m. each Wednesday. It will be led each week by different local pastors.
“We are experiencing an unprecedented moment in modern history,” said Kevin Palau. “The spread of the coronavirus has put the health of many people at risk and disrupted life as we know it. People are feeling anxious and afraid. People are feeling lonely and isolated.
“Now is the time to come together as the Church of Portland to pray and respond.”
The prayer meeting can be viewed live on Instagram and on Facebook. For more information, go to OnePDX.org