By Harry Lucenay
March 17, 2003, Nancy and I arrived in Hong Kong. As we were taking our bags into the place where we would be lodging for the next few weeks, a cell phone rang. The caller told our new friend the “index patient” for SARS had been identified.
Of more interest to us was the fact that he had been staying in a hotel less than a hundred yards from where we were standing. Nervous laughter accompanied the rest of the evening conversation. The big question finally surfaced. “Are you going to stay or are you going back to the States?” With the clarity of God’s call, the answer to that question was never in doubt.
The next six weeks saw Hong Kong take stringent measures to avoid SARS. Stores, malls and public transportation saw a marked drop in people. Hotels and restaurants saw a major decline in traffic. Church attendance also reflected people’s concern with crowds. The news was filled with stories of people who had contacted the disease. Unfortunately, both the people from the general population and the medical personnel treating them were dying. The public alarm was high.
Kowloon International Baptist Church did not cancel any services. However, we did take several measures to combat the possibility of acquiring SARS in church. Physically, we installed sinks in the front of the church. We encouraged people to wash their hands with soap and water when they arrived at church and when they departed. We had a family physician teach our people how to wash their hands. My mother, a nurse, started me washing my hands in a scout project when I was a boy. However, the family physician who taught our people hand washing insisted on a much more thorough process than I had considered.
Any thought of holding hands as a sign of togetherness was quickly abandoned. The pastor shaking hands at the front door became more of a greeting without physical contact.
Many of our people began carrying various forms of alcohol-based hand cleaner. Any time anything was to be eaten, people used the hand cleaner on their hands. Soon, we could not find this hand cleaner in any store in Hong Kong.
We found that some people were ready to wear masks at all times and some were not. This discovery fit with the fact that some of our people could only see the worst possibilities and others down played the severity of the situation. Some wanted me to preach wearing a mask. I did not. Some of the choir members sang in masks. And all of the ushers took up collection wearing masks. The idea of people wearing masks as they took up collection played against many images from this Texan’s boyhood.
Since we were new in the church, many people introduced themselves to us. We could catch the twinkle in God’s eye as these people wore masks and told us their names. Since most have black hair and dark eyes, distinguishing between one and the other because a rather sizeable challenge.
The Lord’s Supper became a challenge. As the caretakers prepared the elements for distribution they wore masks and rubber gloves. We did not feel it wise to pass trays of bread and juice down the pews. Instead, we put the juice in a small plastic cup with a lid. We put a piece of bread in a small container with a plastic lid. We stacked the two with the juice underneath. People came forward to get their two containers. They returned to their seats for the group experience with the Lord’s Supper.
I did not anticipate the addition of noise to the Lord’s Supper. When people started opening the cups, the “click” of plastic moving against plastic was all over the room. I told the people the first Lord’s Supper probably had some sounds in the room that went unrecorded in the Bible.
Since we have multiple services, our caretakers used disinfectant on the pews, hymnals and Bibles between services. This procedure was tedious but gave some sense of comfort to our people.
All children’s areas were disinfected thoroughly after every use. Workers wore masks when working with the youngest children. Any sign of sickness in a child meant the workers pulled the child away from the other children and found the parents.
We had several meetings with physicians during this time. We asked the physicians to give advice based on general hygiene and on the latest information about SARS. Our congregation is highly educated and well traveled. However, they responded well to these sessions because they believe one can always learn something helpful.
Spiritually, I found myself preaching on our need to trust God. Everywhere we turned we encountered signs, broadcasts, and rumors which only ignited fear. We never told our people not to be afraid. Rather, we told our people to trust God. We did not know what was going to happen. We do know One who does. Proverbs 3:5, 6 gave wisdom and guidance. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your way acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”
We reached into great hymns of faith to sing of our trust in God. Troubled times bring incredible inspiration to hymns of faith.
We kept the services very positive in word and spirit. The people were surrounded by announcements of “how bad it is.” They needed to hear a good word from God. They needed to believe what they heard.
My one-on-one conversations were filled with assurances that we were going to stay with the people and see them through this challenge. We listened to many rumors but refrained from passing them along. Many times we prayed with people as they expressed their fears.
People lost jobs. We talked and prayed through their difficulties. Together we sought to find solutions for their problems.
The offering declined. Fortunately, it declined in a part of the year when it often declines. We did not react. Rather, we choose to act carefully. We confidently told the people the situation and carefully took the steps necessary to work through our adjustments.
SARS was six years ago. The Swine Flu is today’s crisis. We do not know how it will run its course. We do know God will see us through it. We do know we need to be wise in how we act. And we need to trust God even as we encourage one another to trust God.