Arkansas flu outbreak impacts churches and communities
WHAT WOULD IT take for an Arkansas Baptist church to change its warm, “Y’all come,”greeting to its community to the cautious and unexpected, “Y’all stay
home”? The answer is simple … and serious: the 2017-18 flu epidemic.
Already, Arkansas has experienced approximately 150 flu fatalities in the 2017-18 flu season, and there are no signs of the flu loosening its deadly grip on the Natural State anytime soon.
The flu outbreak in Arkansas, the worst in nearly 20 years, has made its ferocious path through Arkansas Baptist churches as well, with many churches seeing decreased numbers of people attending services, which goes hand-in-hand with decreased offerings, even as churches take extra precautions, adjust schedules and offer words of comfort to those who have lost loved ones to the flu.
In Judsonia, a beloved elementary school teacher, age 42, recently died from flu complications. Carey Trickey, pastor of First Baptist Church, Judsonia, joined with other area pastors to counsel the school children grieving their loss.
Rocky Bayou Baptist Association rescheduled a youth rally, originally scheduled for mid-February, to mid-March due to the flu epidemic.
Throughout Arkansas, churches are reporting dramatic drops in church attendance, with First Baptist Church, Sheridan, offering one snapshot of these dwindling numbers. First Baptist, which typically has an average attendance of 185, has seen church attendance decrease by approximately 30 percent due to the flu outbreak.
Decreases in church attendance seem to mirror high rates of absences in local schools. On one day in December, 159 children at a middle school in Star City were absent due to illness.
As the flu continues its rampage, church leaders, with daily interactions with church members and community residents, have also experienced the flu firsthand. Ricky Harrison, pastor of Fellowship Bible Baptist Church, Star City, endured the flu. Even as another minister brought a Sunday message in his absence to a congregation that numbered 28 on the cold, damp morning, the worship music was shortened because the pianist was also absent due to illness. Evening services were cancelled.
Church leaders should not be discouraged because of such dwindling numbers, believes James Watson, pastor of Greenlee Memorial Baptist Church in Pine Bluff. “In times like this, numbers don’t really indicate the reality of a church,” he said.
Beech Street First Baptist Church, Texarkana, already has had two of its staff members become ill with the flu, which is “having an impact in this neck of the woods,” according to pastor Craig Jenkins.
Families of ministers are not immune to the flu either. Pastor Danny Allen, who serves Rison Baptist Church, Rison, reported that two of his four children have had the flu.
With the flu epidemic in full swing, many Arkansas Baptist churches are taking extra precautions to protect their members and visitors. For example, some churches are forgoing the usual handshake greeting during
Sunday services while others are placing additional hand sanitizer dispensers throughout their facilities.
Still others are encouraging members and guests to stay home if they are experiencing any signs of illness, with “yall come,” uncharacteristically becoming, “y’all stay home,”… at least for now.
Reporting for this article was done by Jeanie Weber and Margaret Colson of the Arkansas Baptist News staff.