How strange it is to call religious gatherings ‘non-essential’ during a deadly pandemic

The term sends the message that God is on hold, that worship is expendable.

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A woman wears a face shield to protect against the coronavirus during a mass at a Catholic church in Beirut, Lebanon, on May 10.

Bilal Hussein/AP

‘You know, how Pritzker, the governor, said that worship was not essential, that’s what I read,” Jennifer Garcia said. “It really got to me.” 

On Thursday, I sat at my laptop, making a virtual guest speaker appearance at National Louis University.  

I had accepted the school’s kind invitation to share my expertise on the political, social and community issues I cover. The 73 students asked me questions via Zoom. 

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Jennifer Maria García, a 21-year-old junior majoring in business administration, had a wise inquiry. How can visiting your God, in-person, be considered “non-essential?”  

I have been a staunch supporter of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s “stay-at-home” executive orders. 

I have covered daily press conferences where, again and again, Pritzker and myriad experts explain the risks of “congregant settings,” ripe targets for the plague of COVID-19. 

So, I prattled on to her about how Pritzker’s policies are aimed at keeping us safe and alive.  

In Phase 2, non-essential businesses and institutions prohibit group gatherings of more than 10 people. Churches are “congregant” locations where people might gather in large numbers, creating unacceptable risks of passing on the deadly virus. The state restrictions are guided by science, data and the lessons of past pandemics. Blah, blah, blah.  

That “non-essential” label “touched me,” Jennifer replied. “I’m religious, but not extremely religious. But I can imagine how a religious person felt when they heard that.” 

No matter the depth of your faith, it should never be called “non-essential.” It’s a cold, clinical adjective that comes from medicine and science. Worship comes from our hearts as a salve for our souls.  

A salve for the faithful who flock to the churches, synagogues and mosques to find refuge, solace, hope and renewal.  

Those who go to worship in a community — to connect to their spiritual advisers, to celebrate baptisms, bat mitzvahs, weddings, funerals — their communal experiences are spiritual lifelines that keep them connected to the human need to hold hands in prayer, shake hands in peace, lock arms in song.  

You cannot do that online. 

The term “non-essential” denies our existential need to gather for worship. It sends the message, intended or not, that God is on hold. That worship is expendable.  

I could not explain to Jennifer why the state’s confusing web of rules provides that churches stay closed, yet every day, other places — less sacred places — can welcome visitors and commerce.  

Willie Wilson has called on Pritzker to amend his stay-at-home order to recognize the places of worship as an “essential business.”

“The church is the foundation of our soul, people need hope in these challenging times, and the church offers that hope,” the prominent Chicago businessman and philanthropist said last week.  

“If big box stores and grocery stores such as Pete’s, Target, Home Depot and Jewel have the right to welcome more than 10 customers, so do churches, as they, too, are ‘essential’ for our spiritual well-being.”

And liquor stores. We can make runs for beer and booze all day long. We can stir ourselves an icy martini and sip a pink cosmo.  

Yet for Roman Catholics like me, a sip of sacred wine from a Communion chalice is off limits.  

“I’m like, does this show that the government is not being fair?” Jennifer asked. “Are liquors more essential than worship?”

No, they are not. Jennifer, I wish to God I had a better answer.

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