‘Forsaking the assembly?’
Ministers around the globe are preaching sermons to empty rooms.…
Fear and confusion. Members of Churches of Christ in Europe see plenty of both as their continent copes with the pandemic of COVID-19 coronavirus.
For four Christian women living in the Italian capital, there’s also loneliness.
The women worship with the Viale Jonio Church of Christ. They are natives of China. As the number of infections rose, boys began yelling at the women on the subway to leave Italy. Later, they witnessed a Chinese man getting beat up at a supermarket.
“They have been the first to self-isolate in their homes because of this, and they lost their jobs,” said Tonia Vitalone, the wife of one of the church’s four elders. “Italians didn’t go to the Chinese shops and restaurants.”
“They feel very lonely,” Vitalone told The Christian Chronicle. “They have left their families in China because of the religious persecution and are terrorized because of this unexpected persecution by stupid Italians who consider them the cause of the virus in Italy.”
Using her iPad, Vitalone said, she has video chats chats with the women at least once per week “to study the Bible and comfort them.”
That’s how the entire church will be meeting in the weeks to come.
Members of the 52-year-old congregation spread out across their small meeting room on a recent Sunday, observing the Italian government’s recommendation that they maintain a 1-meter distance from each other. Days later, the government placed the entire country on lockdown.
“We keep the law,” Vitalone said. “We’ll get in contact with the brothers by computer.
“Our prayer is that the Word of God is known around and through us — and specifically that we can (endure) the COVID-19 virus and keep on working for our Lord.”
In Italy, COVID-19 deaths had just reached 1,000, prompting the nationwide lockdown. The Chronicle contacted church members for reaction.
• “My Italian friends and brethren are in good spirits,” said Rebecca Shanahan, who serves as a missionary with her husband, Scott, in Florence, about 170 miles north of Rome. “But everyone has an underlying nervousness.
“All children are out of school, and many businesses have closed because they’re not making enough money. All tourist economic flow has basically stopped, and that’s what this region depends on.”
• Church members depend on the economy as well, said Franco Verardi, who ministers for a Church of Christ in Latiano, a southern city situated in the heel of the Italian boot. His daughter runs a shop that had almost no customers for a week.
“Everyone is afraid of everything,” he said. The country “seems to be living in an apocalyptic situation.”
But the ministers sees potential blessings in the pandemic. In a recent post to social media, he wrote:
“HOW MUCH I miss a hug, a pat on the back, a kiss from a friend or brother.
“HOW MUCH I miss a handshake, the noise of a crowd, the children running in the supermarkets aisles.
“HOW MUCH I would like to sneeze and not be seen as an ‘unclean’ person, to dine out with friends and even the embrace of my parents.
“HOW MUCH I MISS NORMAL LIFE!
“I am sure that when all this will end, I will appreciate much more what I took for granted before. Today I already see it as a great blessing!”
• In the northern Italian city of Milan, an epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, a 30-member Church of Christ hadn’t met for several weeks, said church member Marina Tiodar, though a handful of members had met in homes.
“I am praying for wisdom for the people that govern us,” Tiodar said, “and for health, comfort for the people that are now sick.”
She also prays “to have the strength to trust in the Lord, no matter the calamities in our lives.”
Members of Churches of Christ in other parts of Europe report a variety of protocols and restrictions with regard to the pandemic:
• In Colmar, France, meetings of 50 or more people were forbidden, said Aaron Palmer. That wasn’t a problem for the small Church of Christ that worships in his home.
“We are one of two of the hardest-hit parts of France,” he said, “but it is still nowhere near on the level with Italy.”
The church continued to meet, and people were going about their normal routines, Palmer said, though many were not engaging in “la bise,” the traditional, two-kiss greeting.
• Church members in several countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria, told the Chronicle that churches continued to meet but encouraged members with cold or flu symptoms to stay home.
In Vienna, Austria, the Pohlgasse Church of Christ had adopted “no hugging, shaking hands, kissing and not getting too close to each other” rules, member Reggy Hiller said.
• Albania closed schools and barred public gatherings in response to its first COVID-19 cases.
“I’m worried for the days to come,” said Shkelqim Kafexhi, a minister in Durres. “We pray God may end this virus in a miraculous way.”
Related: ‘Forsaking the assembly?’
In Albania’s capital, Tirana, the Church of Christ livestreamed its services, said minister Bledi Valca.
“It’s not the same,” Valca said. “We are a hugging and cheek-kissing culture.” But “it’s an issue of safety.”
From Wuhan, China, the first epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, the virus spread across Southeast Asia. Members of Churches of Christ sent the following reports:
• “This pandemic thing is causing pandemonium,” said Gigie Carranza, just hours after Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, declared a lockdown of the capital city, Manila, which has a metro area of more than 12 million people.
“This pandemic thing is causing pandemonium.” — Gigie Carranza, Philippines
The city had 49 confirmed coronavirus cases at press time, and Carranza was headed to a bus terminal at 5 a.m. to make sure she got back to her home on the outskirts on the city before a transportation ban went into effect.
People were “panic-buying” food and rubbing alcohol, she said.
Danni de Vera, a minister and ministry director in Manila, advised church members to conduct worship services in their homes and sent them study materials. But multiple church youth camps, ladies retreats and gospel meetings would have to be cancelled, Carranza added.
• In Japan, some Churches of Christ had limited gatherings to Sunday morning worship, and masks and hand sanitizer were in use, said missionary Joel Osborne.
At a recent meeting, ministers for Churches of Christ were “prayerfully trying to discern if we should cancel nationwide events at the end of April and beginning of June,” he added.
• In South Korea, online shopping and videoconferencing had helped church members weather the coronavirus, said longtime missionary Malcolm Parsley.
“We have obeyed the laws of the land in not gathering in large groups,” he said, “and sent instructions as to how to prepare the bread for communion and encouraged them to take communion and not fail to worship as families until we let them know otherwise. …
“This pandemic will strengthen the faithful strong, but it is the weaker, newer babes in Christ that we worry about. We need the prayers of all.”
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