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COVID-19 gives Sunday church service a whole new meaning from Italy to Mongolia and beyond

‘We take this situation as a special opportunity to have a stronger bond with family and heaven,’ church member Mika Chiba said from Sapporo, Japan. ‘We have plenty of time together as families now.’

The Sapporo Japan Temple is one of four temples temporarily closed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints due to the coronavirus outbreak. Church meetings in 15 countries have been canceled or limited this week by the spread of the virus.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

SALT LAKE CITY — Travelers walked through the doors of a church meetinghouse in Singapore on Sunday expecting to find a typical Sunday worship service of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Instead, the building was empty.

The coronavirus outbreak caused church leaders to cancel all meetings this week in the city-state of Singapore and disrupted at least some church activities in 15 other countries.

Not everyone got the message, though. Fortunately, the travelers ran into Singapore Stake President Jean-Luc Butel, who was in the building to conduct a few important interviews with church members — one couple had a wedding scheduled in the Philippines and was seeking a temple recommend.

“We haven’t been able to find a way to change the meetinghouse locator on the church’s website to show that we are not holding meetings,” Butel said.

This week, from Italy to Singapore, congregations affected by the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak either held virtual fast-and-testimony meetings on YouTube or Zoom or didn’t meet at all. Some members have gone for five weeks without partaking the sacrament, the sacred weekly ordinance in which they renew their covenants with God to live in harmony with Christ’s teachings and commandments.

The Deseret News interviewed people in 10 countries by telephone and via social media to paint a picture of a Sabbath day in areas where worship was affected by the efforts to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. People from all of the affected countries said the church’s new home-centered, church-supported emphasis was providential.

“This experience is teaching us how important it is that we live and breathe the Gospel at home,” said Andrea Cordani, the president of the Verona Italy Stake. A stake oversees a group of wards, or congregations.

Hand sanitizer and elbow bumps

Latter-day Saint meetinghouses did not open on Sunday in Hong Kong, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, Macau and Singapore.

Meetings were restricted to the one-hour fast-and-testimony meeting in Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand.

“We don’t shake hands when we meet each other,” said Sharon Wong, a self-reliance specialist in Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur Branch. Nobody wears a mask but hand sanitizer is provided, she said, adding, “We just touch elbow to elbow.”

Regular two-hour Sunday services were held in Indonesia, Timor-Leste and Vietnam, but no other meetings will be held during the week.

In Taiwan, stake conferences scheduled through the end of April have been canceled. Meetings in India are unaffected, said Annie Wong, director of communications for the church’s Asia Area.

Church members in the Friedrichsdorf Germany Stake were asked not to shake hands, said LaFern De Molder, a member of the Relief Society presidency in the Usingen Ward.

Latter-day Saint worship services on the first Sunday of a month usually are a fast-and-testimony meeting, where members come to church fasting, and many walk to the podium to share volunteered testimonies of faith in Jesus Christ.

Some church members in unaffected parts of the world fasted and prayed in their meetings for their brothers and sisters in Christ whose religious worship has been interrupted and whose lives have changed.

“Although we had a normal Sunday service, our hearts felt we should pray for those who are affected by the virus,” said Harris Flores, who lives in the Philippines. “We were even requested to include the safety of our brothers and sisters, even those who are not of our faith, in our fasting.”

Taking temperatures at church doors

Most Americans and media outlets are referring to the outbreak as one caused by the coronavirus, but that word actually refers to an entire family of viruses. Some coronaviruses cause the common cold. Others trigger serious diseases, like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), according to the Washington Post. It still is unclear where exactly COVID-19 is on that spectrum.

Out of an abundance of caution, congregations in the Singapore Stake used a special protocol to screen people who wanted to attend Sunday services on Feb. 16, before they shut down church meetings the past two Sundays.

“We did a temperature check and asked when and where they had traveled or if they were in contact with anyone who had traveled to China or Korea,” Singapore Stake President Jean-Luc Butel said. “I bought two high-speed thermometers for every ward and we had disinfectant containers all over the building so people could sanitize their hands frequently.”

No one was turned away.

No church member is known to have been infected in Singapore, Butel said, or in the entire Asia Area of the church, said Annie Wong, the area’s director of communication.

Now, though, “We have closed all our buildings, so it’s church at home,” Butel said.

YouTube sacrament meetings in Italy

The virus outbreak in Italy is surreal, said Cordani, who lives a five-minute drive from the red zone in a series of small towns just north of the Po River. Cordani was on a train that stopped in the red zone, so the stake president is under a 14-day quarantine and has been working from home.

Cordani canceled church meetings for Feb. 23, then local lawmakers in Lombardy, Emilia Romagna and Veneto banned any large gatherings, including religious meetings, until at least March 8, affecting seven of the 10 wards in the church’s Verona Stake.

Cordani said he was torn between two competing thoughts.

“On one hand, this is such an opportunity to really live and preach a ‘home-centered, church-supported’ Gospel,” he said. “I thought that this was a wonderful opportunity, although a somber one, to hold a meeting at home. On the other hand, my thoughts went to those of our Saints who don’t have this luxury, those who live by themselves or are the only members of the church in their families, or the recent converts.”

So Cordani put his stake technology specialist to work.

“We opted for a short virtual meeting on Youtube, held by each bishop, for the wards in the affected areas,” Cordani said.

Technology and the 2019 arrival of the faith’s new home-centered, church-supported curriculum called “Come, Follow Me” have provided providential and often tender solutions to meeting restrictions, Latter-day Saints said.

Members interviewed for this story were not asked about the curriculum, but nearly every one brought it up voluntarily.

“The ‘Come, Follow Me’ program couldn’t have come at a better time, when we all have to do home-centered church,” said Butel, the Singapore Stake president.

Members in Sapporo, Japan, shared their testimonies of Christ on Sunday via the Line chat app and Facebook Messenger, said Mika Chiba, whose family studied the Book of Mormon and the “Come, Follow Me” manual together on Sunday. The teenagers said the family study made it easier for them to share their comments.

“We take this situation as a special opportunity to have a stronger bond with family and heaven,” Chiba said. “We have plenty of time together as families now.”