South Side church holds Sunday service amid coronavirus outbreak: ‘This did not catch God unaware’

“I’m so glad that the bishop left this door open,” said a 79-year-old woman who attends the Apostolic Faith Church in Bronzeville.

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More than 300 people attend Sunday service at Apostolic Faith Church in Bronzeville on March 15, 2020. To implement social distancing, ushers seated people in every other row.

Pat Nabong/For the Sun-Times

As officials moved to place further coronavirus-related restrictions on the public, Bishop Horace Smith attempted to ease the concerns of the about 350 worshippers Sunday at the Apostolic Faith Church in Bronzeville.

“This did not catch God unaware,” said Smith, a pediatric oncologist and assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

“This is not something God sent to us, but it’s certainly something God can use to talk to us,” he added.

While the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America’s Chicago parishes suspended church services altogether, Smith held that “this is the best time to show genuine Christian attitude” as he led an upbeat service that included a full choir, a band and dancers.

His church did, however, take measures to protect its congregation: Individuals exhibiting symptoms and those with autoimmune diseases were asked to stay home and stream services online; people in attendance were urged to donate using a texting system; pews were left empty to space out the congregation; and direct contact was discouraged.

But holding the service flouted directions from Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who last week encouraged the cancellation or postponement of all gatherings drawing over 250 people and canceled all events of more than 1,000 people. That includes everything from concerts to conferences and even large churches.

On Sunday, the governor went a step further and ordered all bars and restaurants closed to in-room starting Monday until the end of the month. That move came after St. Patrick’s Day revelers flooded bars in Chicago on Saturday, drawing a swift rebuke from Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Despite the clampdown on public events, the Greater Harvest Baptist Church in Washington Park was also slated to have church in its sanctuary Sunday. Congregants who didn’t want to attend were urged to stream that service online, as well.

The pews Sunday at Apostolic Faith were filled by a large contingency of older people, who the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

One elderly churchgoer, a 79-year-old woman named Pearl, said she wasn’t worried about contracting the coronavirus. Her reason for coming to church amid the public heath crisis was simple: She “needed prayer.”

“I’m so glad that the bishop left this door open,” said Pearl, who lives on the South Side and didn’t provide her last name. “He used his common sense.”

Pearl noted that she wasn’t going to let fear stop her from worshipping but said she was happy Bishop Smith addressed the coronavirus directly.

Another Apostolic Faith churchgoer, Susan Lennox of Roselle, also put her trust in Smith, noting that “it’s important to obey the pastor, rather than just what’s going on.” Lennox also said she wasn’t worried about older worshippers being stricken by the virus — or possibly dying.

“If they’re ready to go be with the Lord, I’m ready,” said Lennox. “But you don’t want to be foolish. Like we’re supposed to go wash our hands now and we need to be considerate about other people.”

Pastors across the United States delivered sermons to empty pews Sunday as houses of worship adjusted to the reality of the coronavirus pandemic, with the Vatican indicating that the holiest week on its calendar will look vastly different next month.

Many religious institutions around the country took to the internet to stream their services this week – including one megachurch that President Donald Trump tweeted he was tuning in to.

Trump, who had declared Sunday a special national day of prayer, said he would watch a livestreamed service by Jentezen Franklin, a Georgia-based pastor and longstanding evangelical ally of the president. The annual National Day of Prayer is May 7.

During his sermon, Franklin urged prayers for China and Iran, areas hit particularly hard by the virus, while encouraging worshippers not to “let the fear flu get you” by falling prey to panic.

Trump tweeted that Franklin’s service was “great and beautiful.”

Across the United States, religious leaders have taken unprecedented steps to shield their congregations from the coronavirus. Measures have included canceling services and banning large funerals and weddings. A number of Roman Catholic bishops canceled all public worship services for at least two weeks.

Comparably strong measures are being taken by leaders of their faiths, ranging from rabbis in New Jersey to Episcopal and Methodist bishops in North Carolina. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints halted all worship services and church activities for its 16 million members worldwide. Episcopal churches in the Washington, D.C., area, including the Washington National Cathedral, suspended services.

In Italy, where the public is severely restricted from leaving their homes, the Vatican announced that Holy Week liturgical celebrations will not be open to the public. All public Masses are forbidden during lockdown to discourage crowding.

Although Easter, April 12, wasn’t specified in the Vatican statements, it appeared likely that restrictions on large gatherings might well continue in Italy. The Italian government has said it would decide whether measures, now in effect through April 3, would need an extension or tightening.

Contributing: Associated Press

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