Albany Park church hosts Sunday service in defiance of stay-at-home order after suing Pritzker

Cristian Ionescu, the senior pastor of Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church, said the move to hold services is “not a rebellion for the sake of rebellion” and claimed the Constitution grants them the right to worship during the COVID-19 pandemic.

SHARE Albany Park church hosts Sunday service in defiance of stay-at-home order after suing Pritzker
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Members of Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church prepare for a service on May 10, 2020. The church is one of six Romanian-American churches that are defying Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order that limits in-worship services to 10 people. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Just three days after suing Gov. J.B. Pritzker in federal court over his Restore Illinois plan, Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church in Albany Park defied the governor’s stay-at-home order by welcoming dozens of worshippers to a Sunday service.

On Thursday, Elim Romanian and Logos Baptist ministries in Niles asked for a temporary restraining order preventing them from facing criminal repercussions for hosting services while vowing to impose strict social distancing measures. The churches were among six Romanian-American congregations in the Chicago area that were expected to welcome worshippers on Sunday.

Speaking in his native Romanian, Cristian Ionescu, Elim Romanian’s senior pastor, told his flock the move to hold services is “not a rebellion for the sake of rebellion” and claimed the Constitution grants them the right to worship during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Dozens of members of the Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church attend service on May 10, 2020, despite Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order that limits in-worship services to 10 people. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“We feel that we are discriminated against,” Ionescu told the Sun-Times, noting that large groups of people are already allowed to shop at grocery and hardware stores. “We follow the same rules as other places that are also considered essential, and yet we cannot have more than 10 people in a service, which is ridiculous.”

While Ionescu remains confident his church will prevail, a similar challenge lodged by a church west of Rockford was shot down by a federal judge and has since moved to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman said he wouldn’t issue a temporary restraining order to Elim Romanian and Logos Baptist in time for Sunday’s services.

Elim Romanian took considerable steps to adhere to the state’s social distancing and public safety guidelines: Masks, gloves and hand sanitizer were made available, temperature checks were conducted at the door and capacity was limited to 120 worshippers, though the church’s main auditorium and overflow rooms can hold 1,300. Roughly 70 people were in attendance Sunday, including the church leadership, band and choir.

Though the vast majority of congregants didn’t wear masks during the service, almost everyone put one on before leaving. And when the service was winding down, Ionescu sternly directed his followers to stay 6 feet apart and warned against congregating outside.

“Why is this important? We are being watched,” he said. “We are being recorded.”

A woman from the western suburbs came to worship at the church for the first time on Sunday after reading about the court challenge in a Facebook group hosted by Reopen Illinois, a coalition that has held public protests against Pritzker’s stay-at-home order.

“I was in tears,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. “It was so wonderful because we’ve been denied public worship for almost two months now, and it’s important.”

To Ionescu, a religious refugee, the tone some leaders have taken while enforcing stay-at-home orders smacks of the oppressive rhetoric he heard before moving to the United States. After it became clear that police weren’t going to intervene on Sunday, Ionescu said Gov. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot were wise to “stand down” and allow him to lead his congregation.

“Not because we would have reacted negatively, but it would have been a [public relations] disaster,” he said.

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