The social distancing around the coronavirus can be isolating and scary for people, especially people who are housebound or in nursing homes and can’t receive visitors.

Uncertain times like these are when people of faith are most inclined to turn to their churches, church leaders and fellow believers for answers and comfort, for some sense of community and normality.

But how do they do that, when even the churches are closed?

Like schools, restaurants and other public spaces where large groups gather, most of the Detroit Lakes area’s 30-plus churches have shut their doors for at least the next two weeks, or until the worst of the coronavirus threat has passed. It's affecting thousands of local churchgoers.

Tim Rice, the senior pastor at Christian Fellowship Church and president of the Detroit Lakes Ministerial Association, said he’s been getting a lot of texts and emails from people with concerns related to coronavirus. It’s not so much that they’re afraid of running out of things at home, he said, but rather, they’re sharing general fears about how long this "coronatine" might last, and what they should be doing to prepare and cope.

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His go-to advice is, “Try to avoid fear,” and instead connect with as many other people as possible, either over the phone, online or through good old-fashioned letter writing.

Staying up-to-date on the news reports about coronavirus is necessary, Rice said, but “don’t let that be the bulk of your day. If you’re shut in, try to engage other people. If there’s somebody you know is struggling, call them … encourage one another, spend time praying with each other, talking with one another. Be cautious, do the common sense things that we’re supposed to do, and stay in touch with people who encourage you.”

He’s heard of entire congregations that are working together -- albeit remotely -- on efforts to reach out to those most vulnerable. One has organized a group of “phone friends” who make calls from their homes to housebound individuals and people living in senior centers. Many of these isolated people “just want to talk,” Rice said.

There are other groups mailing out hand-written “faith notes,” which include a personal message along with a comforting prayer or passage from the Bible. Rice said members of his own congregation have been making in-person telephone visits to nursing home residents, speaking to them through their bedroom windows so it feels more like a face-to-face conversation, without fear of exposing them to the virus.

“Across the board, everybody is stepping up to the cause,” Rice said, adding that putting the focus on others makes the helping party feel better, too. “Just let people know you care and start checking in on folks that may have some needs.”

Jillene Gallatin, the senior pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church and the vice president of the Detroit Lakes Ministerial Association, said she’s been getting more calls and emails from people at this time, too, who are concerned about coronavirus.

She assures everyone she talks to that their feelings are “very normal,” she said: “God is OK with you wherever you’re at, so hopefully you can be OK with wherever you’re at. At this time we need to be gracious to ourselves and give ourselves permission to live into this new normal.”

Pastors in the ministerial association are communicating with each other regularly, Gallatin said, to share information and best practices from within their churches. And “the tools of technology,” she added, “are still allowing us to share the good news and share in God’s love and forgiveness (with church members).”

Many Detroit Lakes area churches are offering worship services online (or over local TV and radio airwaves) while they’re closed. Some also have other online resources, such as daily blogs and recorded video messages. Churches are encouraging people to worship as much as possible at home; to read their Bibles, gather within their homes, and keep on praying.

“There’s really no magic bullet to it,” Rice said. “We’re just trying to keep people engaged. People need fellowship.”

He suggests the 23rd Psalm to anyone looking for some comforting words from the Bible. He knows of one husband and wife in town who have been reading it to each other every morning, he said. The passage “talks about trying to keep yourself in God’s presence. There’s great comfort in there.”

The Psalm begins:

“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’

Surely he will save you from the fowler's snare and from the deadly pestilence.

He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day,

nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.

A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.”

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