Seventeen annual conference sessions in the Philippines have been postponed indefinitely due to the threat of the coronavirus.
Half the country is on lockdown after a strict home quarantine was placed on the main island of Luzon on Monday to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, which started to spread around the world in January. The move was an expansion of a lockdown of Metropolitan Manila that went into effect over the weekend, placing bans on public gatherings and movement in and out of the city.
According to the Philippines Department of Health, there have been 187 cases of the coronavirus in the country as of Tuesday, with 14 deaths.
Due to the community quarantine imposed through April 14, five Manila Episcopal Area annual conference sessions have been postponed indefinitely — Middle Philippines, South Nueva Ecija, Palawan, South West Philippines and Philippines. Some 2020 annual conferences in the episcopal area were held before the imposed quarantine, while another is scheduled for further out and will be decided on later.
Bishop Ciriaco Q. Francisco of the Manila Area said that the postponements are in compliance with the declaration of health emergency from the World Health Organization and the call of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.
“I postponed all annual conferences in the Manila Episcopal Area within the lockdown period. Public gathering is hereby discouraged to avoid physical contact with people and observe social distancing within 1 meter,” he said.
Francisco encouraged local churches to have alternative and innovative worship online or to “pagsambahayan” (worship at home).
“This is the time when we need to pray and encourage one another,” said Francisco, noting that holiness is body, soul and mind.
Bishop Pedro Torio Jr. of the Baguio Episcopal Area also canceled all annual conference sessions in his area. Those are Northeast Luzon, Central Luzon, Pangasinan, Northeast, North Central, Northwest, Hundred Islands, Northern and Tarlac Philippines.
“We canceled all annual conferences sessions until further notice. We cannot predict what happens in the next three weeks, but we want to make sure that annual conferences will have time to prepare for revised schedules,” he said.
Torio said that the church cannot conduct annual conferences until the quarantines are lifted and the safety of congregations can be assured.
“Meanwhile, we will continue to pray for God's gracious intervention, protection and healing for all,” he said.
Bishop Rodolfo A. Juan of the Davao Area also released an advisory postponing the Mindanao Philippines, Visayas Philippines and Bicol Philippines Provisional conferences until further notice.
“Beloved people called United Methodists, during these trying times, I enjoin you all to be patient and prayerful. With government-enforced restrictions, let us obey for our own sake and for the sake of the community. We need to work together to stop this pandemic.”
The Côte d’Ivoire and Germany North conferences also have postponed their upcoming annual sessions due to growing concerns about the coronavirus.
In the United States, the Oklahoma Conference is changing its annual conference plans. Instead of a three-day gathering May 25-27, the annual session will be shortened to a one-day gathering on May 27 and a two-day gathering held Nov. 20-21. “Our conference leadership met every day for four days to determine how we could move forward in practical but responsible ways,” said the Rev. Derrek Belase, the conference director of connectional ministry. “Every decision we made was bathed in prayer and made in the best interests of our participants.”
Lucille Grace C. Hilario, lay leader of the Middle Philippines Conference, said the conference’s regular session was supposed to begin March 16.
“This is the 60th regular session and we have already made a lot of preparations because it is so special,” she said, noting that the conference was going to be a time to honor former leaders.
“But we have to yield to and obey the COVID-19 protocols to be safe. Safety is our top priority,” she said.
The chair of the board of ordained ministry of the Middle Philippines, the Rev. Sergio Arevalo Jr., said he is saddened by the postponement but recognizes the challenges and opportunities the crisis creates.
“I am personally sad about the postponements of annual conference sessions. However, we need to follow our denominational leaders and government officials to contain this killer virus.
“Although this pandemic gives us harm, damages and challenges, believers must contemplate the lessons behind these experiences. During these times (when) our faith is challenged, we need to strengthen our faith in the great architect of the universe,” he said.
The Rev. Egmedio Equila Jr., a clergyman from the South Nueva Ecija Philippines Conference who is assigned to serve the Filipino congregation in Barker Methodist Church in Singapore, had to cancel his flight to the Philippines.
“Canceling our conference regular session is to take heed of the rightful call of our government health officials. Health is wealth and our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit,” he said.
The Rev. Nomer Lasco, former district superintendent from the South Nueva Ecija Philippines Conference, also expressed his sadness about the impact of the outbreak.
“It creates distance, limits personal contacts, brings fear and increases selfishness,” he said.
However, he noted, the outbreak can be a reminder of the many good things in life and offers opportunities to take care of each other and respect the environment and animals.
The Rev. Edgar De Jesus, president of the National Association of Filipino-American United Methodists, said Filipinos in the U.S., in the Philippines and in many parts of the world are affected by the pandemic. Filipino churches in diaspora canceled services and ministries in China, Japan, South Korea and Italy due to the coronavirus.
“In this season of Lent, we are facing uncertain times with the spread of (the) coronavirus. In the midst of anxieties and fear, we as followers of the risen Christ are people of hope and faith,” he said.
Mangiduyos is a communicator from the Philippines.
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