San Antonio Express-News, 10 May, 2020, page H1

The Rev. Ann Helmke, a Lutheran minister who serves as the city’s liaison to its faith-based communities, discusses how churches and temples can best meet the needs of their congregations and the public during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Rev. Ann Helmke, an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), has served as the city of San Antonio’s liaison to faith-based communities for three years. She was previously Haven for Hope’s director of spiritual services for seven years. She is also one of the cofounders of San Antonio peaceCENTER, an all-volunteer and interfaith nonprofit.

We asked Helmke how faith and worship have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and what guidance the word of God offers for those navigating uncertain circumstances.

Houses of worship are potential hot spots for COVID-19. How can churches meet their congregants’ needs for community and connection without contributing to transmission of the virus?

My quick answer to that is “creatively.” Which many have done. … We have people out there who are doing regular YouTube (broadcasts) of support and inspiration. Some congregations have set up 24-hour-a-day volunteer phone lines for people to call — not just for emergencies, but spiritual companion needs — someone to talk to and reach out to. They’ve let their congregants know that’s available, whether that might be prayer or just talking because you are lonely or might be in despair and have an emergency.

My mother’s 95 and lives in Illinois and she’s still at home by herself. … It limits a very active and engaged relational setting for her that also includes worship time, which is really important to my mother. She considers that an essential portion of her life. The two of us, every Sunday morning, spend an hour plus together (on the phone in worship). … Whenever two or three are gathered, that’s where church happens.

Do you think this pandemic will cause permanent changes in the rituals of group worship that are central to so many faith traditions? Will things ever again be the way they used to be?

I think that this global experience will, has and is changing all of us in many different ways. So it’s going to change even our gatherings and what they look like. People have found out in the process — some who’ve gone virtual — their attendance has gone way up. They have more people coming to worship than they had before.

I think for some, they will definitely practice what they had been practicing before. But they’re also going to be utilizing technology in ways that they hadn’t before. Ancient practices that have been done over millennia are still going to be there.

One of the things we’re finding out in the pandemic is … many are discovering the beauty of conversation again. The importance of playing board games. The importance of having a picnic — and maybe the children had never experienced a picnic because the parents hadn’t done it for years.

There will be some that when we feel like we can really go back … it will look just like perhaps what they were doing in February. I’m sure there will be. But I also know there will be a lot of transformation that has occurred and we’ll be seeing that as well.

The Catholic Archdiocese, Episcopal Diocese, Community Bible Church and others have suspended their in-person worship services and turned to live streaming or broadcasts. But some churches have continued to hold in-person services, often with size limits and social distancing. Is there a division or varying opinions in the faith world over how to respond to this virus?

There are various vantage points, as well as theological vantage points. I don’t know if we’ve been at this long enough to cause division. Theological division usually takes a while to formulate.

So, are there ways to be responsible to others while still providing those essential spiritual support systems? There are. People have discovered that. That doesn’t disrespect or disregard what someone else is doing. But to think that we can only provide essential services, whatever they are, only one way, we see that that’s simply not true almost in every case.

I think sometimes (of ) the people who really are putting their lives at risk. I think about the homeless hotel that’s been set up for those who are more vulnerable within our homeless community and are being housed within hotel settings, and that’s being operated by the city and Haven for Hope. There are things that still require humans to be connected to humans. And how brave those essential workers are by being there. In my mind, it’s exactly the same as essential workers who are in the health care and medical system.

I thank God for them daily … That translates as well into the essential service of the spiritual component.

There have been limits and guidelines on worship that have been issued in recent weeks and months by mayors and county judges in various jurisdictions and the governor. Some of this has sparked strong criticism, even lawsuits, from people who view these measures as an infringement on freedom of religion. How can this tension be reconciled? Can churches stand apart from what government is requiring of everyone else during a pandemic?

The only way I know that this tension can be reconciled is by respect and honoring. And I fully believe that our local government has done that.

So let’s take, for example, just this very last thing that’s happened last week in terms of the governor saying houses of worship are essential services and could reopen. So that’s not a mandate, right? Then our local government came back, fully recognizing that, saying … it’s your choice whether to reopen or not — but from our knowledge and from this direction, staying home remains still the best option for stopping the spread.

So in that sense … the local government is respecting that separation of church and state. I feel really good about how our civic leaders approached it.

For people whose faith and worship are central to their lives and who find themselves unable to attend church services right now because of the risks of the virus, what reassurance or words of comfort can you offer them? Particularly for senior citizens or folks who might be living alone during this period of staying at home?

I think part of the comforting words are: you’re not alone. In your aloneness, in your experience — as difficult as it may be — there are others who are experiencing separation in ways they don’t want to. And a lot of the things that were central in our lives are absent. But that doesn’t change the love, by any means. You are loved. Even if I don’t know who you are, you’re still loved.

There are others who are here for you even if you can’t see them or be with them. I encourage whoever is in that situation — just as I encourage congregations — to reach out. I encourage people who are alone and feeling alone — and it can be so hard — but to reach out as well and to say ‘Hello, I’m here, and I need someone.’ And not to make any assumptions.

But I really encourage people who might not be as isolated, and might be in a more resilient place and not as at risk, to reach to people that they know who are. I’ve seen wonderful exhibits of community by teachers forming parades in cars through neighborhoods where their students are. And I’ve seen notes (left) at doors in the neighborhood – “Hi, I live at 103. If you need anything, we’re still able to be out in the world and we’d be more than glad to help you with your needs. Here’s our phone number.”

You also currently lead the city’s interfaith initiative Compassionate San Antonio. How can San Antonio be a compassionate city during this pandemic?

I think it already is. I think that the decisions that are being made by civic leaders are compassionate decisions. And when I say that — compassionate based on the ethic of reciprocity, also known as the golden rule.

So I think how the decisions are being made, it might not look like compassion because they are tough things that we’ve had to hear. But those were done with the greater good in mind and the greatest of respect for everyone who lives here. But the amount of obvious compassionate acts are almost endless … I just think the list goes on and on of how compassion has shown itself … Think about all the people making face masks to be given away because they care for other people.

How can churches and temples of various faiths work together during this health crisis to best serve all people in San Antonio?

We have more in common than we are different. And if we stay focused on serving the real needs of people that we share in common — so, food, housing, health care — that’s how we can work together.

Last week, I know the Hindu community donated almost 7,000 face masks. They were surgical grade, as well as N95 (masks). So those went to the first responders and health care workers. That was from the faith community.

The most common thing that all the world religions have is that ethic of reciprocity, that golden rule. It’s the most ancient of all wisdoms, and it’s found in every religion. If we can work from there … we can work together.

What would Jesus say or do during this pandemic?

It’s kind of a dangerous question to ask. Because if you start to get honest with yourself in asking the question, you might not like the answer that comes back …. In our current situation, am I at home, not working, because the office is closed, but I’m still getting paid? And good for you if you’re having a time in your life where you can regroup — oh my goodness, what a great gift.

But if it’s one big party, and it’s really just about you, then how are you doing the Jesus thing? Because Jesus was not about himself. When people were hungry, they were fed. When they were hurting, they were healed. Are you ready to be about that work?

For me, it all boils down to love. The acts of compassion are how love is exhibited. So how are we loving others in this situation?

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