How Ebola Took A Toll On One American Church

Jan 4, 2015
Originally published on January 5, 2015 6:49 pm

On a typical Sunday, the pews in Trinity Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. are almost full. But a few months ago, the large stone church with stained glass windows in northwest Washington, D.C. began looking rather empty. Roughly a quarter of the congregation — 50 people — had stopped showing up.

At first, Rev. John Harmon, the head of the church, wasn't sure what was going on. Then he started getting phone calls from parishioners. "Some folks called to say, I'm not coming to church because I don't know who's traveling [to West Africa]," Harmon says.

The congregation at Trinity is an international crowd. More than 20 countries are represented, including several in West Africa. Reverend Harmon himself was born in Liberia before moving to the U.S. in 1982, when he was 18.

It turns out the fears of congregation members were unfounded — no one from the church was traveling to West Africa during the Ebola outbreak. But some still worried the disease might somehow creep into the church.

At the same time, the church was doing its part to help fight Ebola. Members had raised more than $5,000 and donated medical supplies and protective equipment to West Africa.

But that altruistic spirit didn't bring the missing congregants back to church. At a service in October, Harmon finally addressed the elephant in the cathedral.

"In the middle of the service, we just had this honest conversation," Harmon says.

At the time when he would normally deliver a sermon, he instead asked parishioners to voice their concerns. Then several doctors from the congregation talked about Ebola, including how it spreads.

Cora Dixon, a member of Trinity who describes herself as "very concerned about Ebola," says the doctors were reassuring. "They relaxed our minds," she says.

Harmon asked anyone traveling abroad to skip church for three weeks — the incubation period of Ebola — even if they weren't traveling to West Africa. He told everyone it was okay to nod or bow rather than shake hands during the passing of the peace — the part of the service where parishioners greet one another.

Harmon also asked the ushers to put out two big bottles of hand sanitizer. "I use them when I get back to the altar, [as a] visible sign that we are expressing care for each other," he says.

Since Harmon and other church leaders addressed these concerns, attendance at Trinity has picked back up, almost to pre-Ebola levels. More people are showing up for community service events, too, like a pre-Christmas dinner for homeless people.

Adolphus Ukaegbu, a church usher who is originally from Nigeria, says some members are still avoiding church events because they're scared of Ebola — including an elderly woman he used to bring to Sunday morning services.

"She told me she was advised not to come to church, because there are so many West Africans in the congregation. And since then, I haven't seen her," he says.

But for the most part, things at Trinity are back to normal. And congregants have even started shaking hands and hugging again at the passing of the peace.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ebola has been on the minds of many people here in the U.S. over the past year. Media reports showed the horror of the outbreak in West Africa. Hundreds of Americans traveled overseas to fight the disease. And in this country, hospitals and airports came up with plans for dealing with those who had been exposed to the virus. Meanwhile, members of a church in Washington, D.C., were affected by Ebola in ways they never expected. NPR's Anders Kelto has our story.

ANDERS KELTO, BYLINE: Trinity Episcopal Church is a beautiful place. There are stone walls, wooden rafters, stained-glass windows. And the congregation here is very international. They're from more than countries, including several in West Africa. Reverend John Harmon, who's originally from Liberia, says when Ebola hit West Africa, the church pitched in.

REVEREND JOHN HARMON: This congregation gave $5,000 and were part of a national effort to send containers to West Africa.

KELTO: Containers with medical supplies and protective suits. But then in the midst of all this giving, a funny thing happened. Church attendance went way down. Nearly a quarter of the congregation, 50 people, just stopped showing up. At first, Reverend Harmon wasn't sure why. And then he started getting phone calls from parishioners.

HARMON: Some folks called to say, you know, I'm not coming to church because I don't know who's traveling.

KELTO: As in who's traveling to West Africa. But here's the thing, no one was traveling to West Africa. Most West Africans in the congregation hadn't been back there in years. But still, some church members feared Ebola would somehow creep into the church. The low attendance continued for weeks, and Reverend Harmon started to get concerned. Then at a church service in October, he finally addressed the elephant in the Cathedral.

HARMON: In the middle of the service, we just had this honest conversation.

KELTO: You just kind of stopped and were like, we're going to talk about this?

HARMON: Yes, that's what we did.

KELTO: He asked parishioners to voice their concerns. And then he had several doctors from the congregation come up and talk about Ebola, including how it's spread. Cora Dixon, a church member, says the doctors' talk was reassuring.

CORA DIXON: Several of them got up, and they spoke to the cause. And they relaxed our minds.

KELTO: Then Reverend Harmon asked anyone traveling abroad to skip church for three Sundays, even if they weren't traveling to West Africa. He also said it was OK to nod or bow rather than shake hands during the passing of the peace. And he had the ushers put out two big bottles of hand sanitizer.

HARMON: I use them when I get back to the alter so that visible sign is that we are expressing for each other.

KELTO: And at any time, did you ever just kind of feel like this is all a little crazy that we have to do this? I mean, Ebola is thousands of miles away. You don't have people going there.

HARMON: Yes, we - (laughter). I think it's important to really make people aware and, you know, address their concern.

KELTO: Since Reverend Harmon addressed these concerns, attendance at Trinity has picked back up, almost to pre-Ebola levels. More people are showing at community service events, too.

Just before Christmas, the church hosted a dinner for homeless people. Adolphus Ukaegbu, a church member who is originally from Nigeria, was there helping out dishing up food and helping lead Christmas carols.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAROLERS)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) ...Hills of snow, in a one-horse open sleigh...

KELTO: Ukaegbu said some members of Trinity are still avoiding church events because they're scared of Ebola. But for the most part, things are back to normal.

ADOLPHUS UKAEGBU: Since then, everybody peace now, everybody shaking hands.

KELTO: And with that, he grabbed hands with the people around him and kept singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAROLERS)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) On the second day of Christmas, my true love sent to me...

KELTO: Anders Kelto, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAROLERS)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) ...Two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree. On the third day of Christmas... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.