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Seeing persons, not masks: How compassion and community can prevail in pandemic-era worship services

An organist follows local COVID-19 public health guidelines by playing the organ with a face mask during a Latter-day Saint Sunday worship service.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

As millions of Americans are returning to public gatherings for worship, there is controversy about the wearing of masks in religious settings. There are diametrically opposing, strongly-held views about this practice.

Yet, we think wearing facial coverings at religious services is a wise and compassionate thing to do and a charitable exercise of one’s personal liberty.

Some religious people have indicated that they would not return to attending public religious meetings unless everyone is required to wear a mask. Others have indicated that, for reasons of personal liberty, they would not attend services if they are required/expected to wear a mask

A recent survey of more than 4,500 Americans showed that 84% of Americans say they have worn a face covering because of the coronavirus. Recent research shows that just over 4 in 10 people said they wear a mask at all times when leaving the house and nearly 7 in 10 said they maintain social distance from others.

While about 12% of Americans know someone who died from COVID-19, virtually all of us worry about ourselves and others. If we have lost someone close to us, we are more likely to be in favor of stronger measures that protect others — even if they inconvenience us.

For many, it is hard to sacrifice one’s personal or political views for a religious purpose. Yet, religiously devoted people frequently do: a busy person who still takes time to care for others; a person with strained finances who still makes generous donations to help others.

Wearing a mask is awkward, stifling, uncomfortable and inconvenient. Maybe even a sacrifice. Even so, for many, the decision to wear a face-covering is intended to primarily protect others rather than oneself.

The Latter-day Saint experience

As local restrictions ease, members of our own faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will soon begin holding occasional congregational sacrament meetings after a couple months of exclusively home-centered worship. Like members of other faith communities, there is excitement in the community of members of the church about the possibility of joining together to worship God, to renew association with fellow believers and to renew sacred covenants by receiving the sacrament.

A new poll done by Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics found that 51% of Utahns believe church services are important to them now (47% said they were not), yet even if appropriate social distancing measures are in place, 46% of Utahns are uncomfortable about going to church (52% are comfortable).

Many Saints have been able to regularly receive the sacrament at home during the past couple months. Others have not. Many Saints have loved gathering with family and close friends for “home church” or “family sacrament” and perhaps have some mixed feelings about returning to public worship when COVID-19 is still a real danger. Others have felt isolated and disconnected or have had a negative religious and or relational experience in their homes.

Some U.S. saints will attend services in places where governmental mandates require the wearing of masks, while others will worship in places with only encouragement to wear masks. Religious leaders within and across faith communities will need to handle this in various ways.

The church explicitly exhorts members to live the law of the land and, where required by government authorities, to wear masks to services in order to protect others. Where not required, the church still strongly recommends that masks be worn, though some commentators still worry these guidelines do not go far enough.

We are grateful that general church leaders are emphasizing general principles like concern for others over specific unyielding policies (e.g., everyone must wear a mask) and are allowing local leaders to make decisions about specifics, given a wide array of contexts. We hope local leaders will consult equally with women and men in their congregations about sensible best practices.

Blessing and strengthening others

We are particularly concerned about the most vulnerable among us, both physically and spiritually, and we must take extra care to protect the physical health of the most vulnerable.

The most vulnerable spiritually may include those whose political or social views are so strongly held that they override their religious covenants to be of one heart and one mind and care for the poor (in health) among them.

In the near future, we are excited to see members of our congregational church family, but we also want to do all we can to see them in the months and years ahead. As we make short-term choices about masks in large gatherings, may we compassionately consider the long-term physical and spiritual well-being of all persons.

David C. Dollahite and Loren D. Marks are professors of family life at Brigham Young University where they are co-directors of the American Families of Faith project. Their views are their own.