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Belmont Cragin pastor says neighborhood’s high rate of COVID-19 infection ‘doesn’t matter’ while flouting stay-at-home order

Pastor Joseph Wyrostek said he wouldn’t take responsibility if one of his followers falls ill after breaking the rules to worship at a church located within a coronavirus hotspot.

Belmont Cragin residents hold a protest in front of Metro Praise International, which is holding services on May 17, 2020. The church violates Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, which limits in-worship services to 10 people. | Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times
Belmont Cragin residents protested outside Metro Praise International Church, which held services on May 17, 2020, in violation of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, which limits in-worship services to 10 people. | Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times

With coronavirus cases surging in Belmont Cragin, some neighborhood residents held a drive-by protest as the Metro Praise International Church flouted the state’s stay-at-home order and welcomed dozens of worshippers for a second straight Sunday.

As drivers blared their horns, one passenger leaned out of a car window and held up a rain-soaked sign that encapsulated the demonstrators’ overarching message: “NOT IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD.”

The church, located at 5405 W. Diversey Ave., falls within the 60639 area code, which has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus. The 2,365-recorded cases in the area code are the second-most statewide.

Joseph Wyrostek, pastor of the nondenominational church, said he wouldn’t take responsibility if one of his followers falls ill after breaking the rules to worship at a church located within a coronavirus hotspot.

“We can gather and spread our hope, our love, our religion without interference from the government. And so 35 miles right now to Indiana — Hammond, just think of it like an extension of Indiana — this is not illegal,” he said. “This is perfectly fine.

“Now, people keep saying well that’s not the same thing as the infection rate, or whatever. It doesn’t matter. What is an infection rate, anyway? It’s people spreading a virus. A virus will get spread one way or another.”

Joe Wyrostek, an apostolic elder of Metro Praise International, welcomes members of his church on May 17, 2020. Belmont Cragin residents protested the church’s decision to defy Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, which limits in-worship services to 10 people. | Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times
Joseph Wyrostek, an apostolic elder of Metro Praise International, welcomes members of his church on May 17, 2020. Belmont Cragin residents protested the church’s decision to defy Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, which limits in-worship services to 10 people. | Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times

Unlike other churches that have filed lawsuits against Pritzker to conduct worship services, Wyrostek said his church hasn’t taken legal action and is “just passively resisting” Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order. His church planned to welcome up to 60 people to each of its three Sunday services, far more than the 10 congregants allowed under Pritzker’s revised order.

Outside the church, Chicago police SUVs circled the block and parked in a nearby gas station, but no steps were taken to shut down Wyrostek and his flock.

Meanwhile, a few protesters stood in the rain and held signs as others drove by. One protester from the neighborhood, who asked to remain anonymous, said the church’s decision to hold services as the area reels from the virus “puts salt in the wound.”

“This latest action by them, by not closing during quarantine, is really indicative of a clear, right wing cult mentality that they have,” the man said. “They would rather keep themselves in business, keep themselves earning money, instead of caring about the residents of this neighborhood, which many of them, including the pastor, are not a part of.”

A similar scene played out at the Philadelphia Romanian Church of God, 1713 W. Sunnyside Ave. in Ravenswood, where police SUVs and protesters waited outside as businessman Willie Wilson addressed the congregation. Ushers at the door didn’t allow a Sun-Times reporter to enter the service and instead directed the reporter to watch online.

Wilson was invited to Philadelphia Romanian after he publicly supported Chicago pastors who sought to reopen in defiance of the rules. The governor later shot back, saying Wilson’s move was “ridiculous.”

But as Wilson addressed Sunday’s crowd of around 50, he offered prayers to both Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot — despite both of them warning church leaders against holding large church services.

“I tell everybody this here wherever I go: Practice your social distancing,” said Wilson, who has donated millions of masks during the coronavirus crisis as he stages a long shot bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin. “Do what the signs say. Do what the laws say.

“But don’t ever put the law before God.”

Willie Wilson worships with members of Philadelphia Romanian Church during a service on May 17, 2020. The church is one of many churches across Chicago that are defying Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, which limits in-worship services to 10 people. |Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times.
Willie Wilson worships with members of Philadelphia Romanian Church during a service on May 17, 2020. The church is one of many across Chicago that are defying Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, which limits in-worship services to 10 people. |Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times.