How Does One Say Welcome Through a Mask?

Most of us are getting used to smiling really hard to enhance the mirth or joy in our eyes. Without this, will anyone out in the public know that we are smiling behind our mask? You know the feeling: you have just stepped into the wrong aisle, from the wrong lane, heading in the wrong direction, down a supermarket throughway and you want to give that sheepish smile that says, “Oops, I will do better next time but right now I just need to reach that jar of bread yeast. Heh, heh, heh, smiley, smiley, smile.” We wish an emoji would pop up over our head to express our emotion. Alas, that only happens in cartoons and virtual reality. But here in the real world, we are not so fortunate. 

I thought about this as I read the news today and saw pictures of restaurants and retailers with signs that read, “Welcome Back – We Are Open” with owners standing at their doors smiling over masks. Yes, we know we are welcome, but we would be much more at ease if there was now no need for that black “bandit” mask that we have all been wearing for the last while (or should I wear the camo mask today?). Which brings me to a point about the re-opening of church buildings. Larry Osborne at North Coast Training Centre has some great insights into what will be necessary for the successful re-opening of our worship services. Most leaders, to this point, have focussed on the physical necessities of masks, hand sanitizers, touchless services, no consumables, and the challenge of children’s ministries. Osborne emphasises what it will take to have a quality worship service that meets or exceeds the quality of online services without totally exhausting pastors, tech-teams, and volunteers. In my mind, it created some questions worth considering. What does it mean to have a quality worship service? Is singing through a mask, while socially distanced necessarily a better worship experience than an online worship service? How many people will we be able to invite into our auditoriums? What about families with small children? Who will be comfortable returning to an enclosed space with central heating and many touch-points? Will my welcoming smile be noticed at the door or will I need to wear a t-shirt that says, “I am smiling under this mask”?
I think Larry Osborne is asking the right questions and perhaps foreseeing the appropriate responses. He suggests churches consider returning to large indoor spaces at a time similar to when people start to return to large outdoor sports arenas. The science of infection relies upon the concept of “Exposure to virus” X “Time” = “Infection”[1] So, indoor facilities pose greater risk than outdoor (because in the outdoors, wind will disperse viral particles in biological droplets faster and make them more dilute than in indoor spaces – even this may not hold up to some of the most recent research). But, time together in a church service may be shorter and less active than time spent cheering for your favourite sports team with a much larger crowd. These are the considerations which must go into decisions about when to open zoos, sports facilities, gyms, and places of worship. Do we really want to get ourselves into a situation where we book a time when we are allowed to go to a worship service in a building, after donning mask and gloves, and carrying around a bottle of spray disinfectant? It may be suitable to limit attendance and booking times at the Zoo, but what would such limitations say to the general public wishing to attend a church service? Would we create member only services? Visitor only services? Services with singing and services without singing? Services where seniors can attend and non-seniors services? Children-welcome and children-not-welcome services? Larry Osborne has reminded us that there are some big questions yet to ask. Most of them have no credible answer in the present context. 
Francis Collins (Head of the NIH in the USA) has said that we might possibly have a vaccine by the end of the year. He and Timothy Keller have also commented on the disparities that are present in our medical systems that create have and have-not cultures.[2] Any re-openings and access to vital medications and vaccines must take into consideration Jesus’ words about “the least of these.” All will need equal access.
So, “to [open] or not to [open]. That is the question. Whether it is nobler in the mind to” remain closed or to re-open. That is one of the questions of the Kingdom of God in which we live and to which we look forward. Until we answer this question, keep smiling. The smile lines increasing with age will only serve to emphasise your smiling eyes.

[1] Erin Bromage, “The Risks – Know Them – Avoid Them,” Dr. Bromage joined the Faculty of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in 2007 where he teaches courses in Immunology and Infectious disease, including a course this semester on the Ecology of Infectious Disease which focused on the emerging SARS-CoV2 outbreak in China,

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