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Rabbi Steven Stark Lowenstein of Am Shalom synagogue in Glencoe opens the ark, where the Torah scrolls are kept.
Rabbi Steven Stark Lowenstein of Am Shalom synagogue in Glencoe opens the ark, where the Torah scrolls are kept.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

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Chicago clergy on seeking God in the age of COVID: ‘The church has left the building’

“Even when we come back, I think there are still going to be restrictions,” one pastor says. “The question is: How do we adapt and still be able to be with each other?”

As Chicago wrestles along with the rest of America about how best to reopen, clergy of diverse faiths across the city and suburbs say the reopening debate has turned a spotlight on the changing face of religion in the era of COVID-19.

That new face, etched by forced technological pivots, will affect how America worships long after congregants return en masse to the church edifice.

“We’ve always taught that the church is not the building but people who gather in it, so this has been a challenge for the membership to grow up and now live the faith,” said the Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Catholic Church in Auburn Gresham. “It has also pushed churches to think outside the box about how we are supporting members while being disconnected physically.”

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That’s only the start of the challenges.

“This has truly been a challenge for churches, I think a challenge financially,” Pfleger said. “And what has also been challenging is the fellowshiping part of worship service. It’s not just the actual service and ritual that we do in our churches, synagogues and mosques. There’s the other part, the public gathering of believers.

“But at the other end of this has been an opportunity. To use an old tagline, ‘The church has left the building.’ ”

With a robust online presence prior to the pandemic, St. Sabina began livestreaming its 10 a.m. Sunday services, with just 10 celebrants in the sanctuary and adhering to social distancing.

Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Catholic Church in Auburn-Gresham.
Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Catholic Church in Auburn-Gresham.
Max Herman / Sun-Times file

Each week, the church also posts a worship hour and a live bulletin on its website, Facebook and YouTube. Meetings of church leaders and small group ministries are done via Zoom.

“I’ve been telling my folks not to get used to Zooming and phone-conferencing,” said Pfleger, who calls 25 church members weekly. “There is still nothing better than being with each other.

“But I think this will go on for a while. And even when we come back, I think there are still going to be restrictions. Will social distancing continue? Are we going to be called to wear masks? The question is: How do we adapt and still be able to be with each other?”

St. Sabina got a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan to help keep its school and church staff employed. The church, which distributes food to the needy daily, also provides weekly child care for 75 kids of essential workers. And its social activism continues.

“I was recently touched by what I saw downtown — people on their balconies waving lights, singing, as a way of connecting with one another,” Pfleger said. “I didn’t see anything like that on the South Side.

“So that Sunday, instead of livestreaming from the church, we had about 40 people drive up and park. Then, in masks and gloves, we walked, socially distanced, to 79th and Racine, spending an hour and a half just crying out to God in prayer.

“We’ve also been calling different members of the church in for volunteering — ‘making the word flesh.’”

Member-volunteers have distributed 15,000 face masks, delivered meals to workers at South Side hospitals — Jackson Park, Mercy, Roseland and St. Bernard’s — and lunches to senior citizen buildings.

“We’ve got to keep a connection with our members and let them see their church being active,” Pfleger said. “There’s definitely a drop in donations when your members are not physically coming in. Our finances are tight with a capital ‘T’ right now, but God is providing.

“We’re obviously encouraging them to support the church even though they can’t come to church. If a church is not doing anything, it’s hard to push for support.

“But if you’re still impacting the community, they want to support that, and one of the things I hear from members is that they’re happy to support because they see we’re still out here being church.”

Pastor Chris Harris inside Bright Star Church of God In Christ in Bronzeville on the South Side.
Pastor Chris Harris inside Bright Star Church of God In Christ in Bronzeville on the South Side.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Another South Side pastor, the Rev. Chris Harris of Bright Star Church, shares those sentiments. The Bronzeville church has continued to provide social service programs through its nonprofit Bright Star Community Outreach during the pandemic.

The church has provided masks and meals to seniors, groceries and rent to those who lost jobs to COVID-19 and free counseling to anyone through its trauma helpline, which has seen a 14% spike in calls due to the coronavirus.

Bright Star distributes 140 25-pound boxes of food a week to people in need, including some at the nearby Dearborn Homes public housing development, where its pastor grew up.

“That’s what the church is supposed to do,” Harris said. “If you’re not going to do it, you might as well close the doors.

“Many churches unfortunately are not relevant to the community or their congregants in this pandemic because, at this time, people need more than singing, sermons and shouting.”

Bright Star also got a PPP loan to keep the staff of its nonprofit and church on the payroll. It failed to get the loan through its bank in the first round of funding but got it in the second round through the Illinois Facilities Fund.

“We were initially down maybe 35% over last year financially, but now we’re not,” Harris said. “Some of the congregants have lost jobs, been furloughed or laid off. We’re really surviving off donations from people who know the community work we do. And we also have new people that are watching our work.

“People that are not congregants are starting to donate not because of the words, not because of the worship — because they see what Bright Star Church does in the community.”

In a nationwide conference call between former President Barack Obama and faith leaders at Easter, Harris spoke of the challenge of pivoting to online worship services.

“Shame on me that heretofore our worship experience focused 80% on who was on the scene and 20% on who was watching on screen,” Harris said. “This pandemic caught us off-guard. We had to shift to 100% online in a short time on a very limited budget.”

With continual refinement, the church’s livestream of its 10 a.m. Sunday service on its website, Facebook and YouTube pages has seen great growth, he said.

“We are not considered a megachurch, yet sometimes on Facebook alone we have 8,000 to 10,000 viewers,” said Harris, who also streams a midweek worship service and hosts Zoom prayer three times weekly. “Before, we might get 2,500.”

With a 10-person limit on funerals, Bright Star saw a niche and moved to fill it, creating a free virtual funeral platform.

“We’ve had at least four of those funerals, and at least 15,000 have tuned in,” Harris said. “Churches now have the responsibility, the obligation and an opportunity to rethink what church is, not just what the church does. We cannot do eight-track ministry in an iPad generation.

“I don’t agree with anyone trying to go back to church too fast. I don’t think we should endanger our congregants. I’m a man in authority, but I know how to be under authority. And even after everybody else goes back, we’ll wait two full weeks just to make sure.”

Rev. Shannon Kershner, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church at 126 E. Chestnut St.
Rev. Shannon Kershner, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church at 126 E. Chestnut St.
Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Safety is also top of mind for the Rev. Shannon Kershner, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church at 126 E. Chestnut St. along the Magnificent Mile. It’s why the church livestreams its 11 a.m. Sunday services from Kershner’s living room rather than the sanctuary.

“The empty sanctuary is really a statement of our love and action,” Kershner said. “It’s an expression of God — love your neighbor, essentially — love for our health care professionals and other essential workers who would be harmed if we were to somehow contribute to the spread.

“I’m going to be in my living room, just as all my members are. There’s an intimacy to it, as well as a solidarity that’s been really interesting to discover.”

Along with its worship services, the church in the wealthy downtown community moved online the many classes offered through its Center for Lifelong Learning — 700-plus church members are over 70. Kershner and seven ministers try to do phone checks on each of them.

“Church meetings are on Zoom,” Kershner said. “Bible study is on Zoom. Prayer meetings are on Zoom. In the beginning, we were thinking: If we can just get through Easter, things will go back to normal. Then, we realized that wasn’t going to happen and that we were going to have to remain in this adaptive mindset.

“Then, it was: OK, how can we sustain the ministry that we’re doing in all these new ways, getting clearer about what needs to be our priorities? One thing that became clear is that people really want to feel connected.”

While its preschool and day school are shuttered, Fourth Presbyterian’s nonprofit Chicago Lights continues its after-school tutoring program for up to 400 young people online.

A drop-in social service center has gone curbside, and free meals are still handed out four times a week, with some people showing up who had never been in need before.

“So far, we have kept afloat from generosity, same way we always have,” Kershner said. “We have not seen that generosity wane.

“I know there are people in my church who’ve lost jobs, who cannot contribute the way they have in the past. But we’ve reached a whole new audience through the livestreaming, and people all around the country are making gifts, using Venmo or online giving. It’s weird.

“I don’t know how long this lasts. We’re trying to think through possibilities so that, if we need to make different decisions moving into the future, we’ll be ready. For now, we continue to be grateful because the building may be closed, but church is still going on.”

Also continuing through the pandemic are the Jewish rituals usually held in synagogues, among them the b’nai mitzvah coming-of-age celebrations and the brit milah naming ceremony.

“We’re still doing everything we were doing before — just finding different ways to do it online,” said Rabbi Steve Lowenstein of Am Shalom in Glencoe. “I’ve done funerals and memorial services, brit milah, marriages and b’nai mitzvah, visitation for shiva [mourning after a death]. It’s all through Zoom or Facebook Live or our web streaming platform.

“In some ways, it’s been amazing because more people can come than ever before. Travel is no longer a barrier, and people can be at these moments that are so incredibly powerful.”

For b’nai mitzvah, Lowenstein delivers a Torah and prayer books to the celebrant’s home. The teenager then leads the service as if in the sanctuary, with family and friends looking on, sometimes more than 100, via Zoom.

Members pick up challah — bread — from Am Shalom on Friday mornings to break bread together while watching that evening’s shabbat service.

Saturday morning Torah studies at Am Shalom are now held online. So are new offerings like cooking classes and discussion groups — designed to keep members connected with their synagogue.

“We’ve always been a congregation that streams,” Lowenstein said. “We were ahead of the curve for Friday night services. Everything else, we’re learning as we grow. We’re trying to engage as many people as we can. And, in some ways we’re succeeding, as more people are participating online. But we miss being together.

“It used to be that, if someone was sick, we’d go right over to visit. Now, we can’t do things that were first nature for us, so we have to find ways to be with people.”

Am Shalom, which also has a religious school, hasn’t been hurt financially, as members paid dues at the start of the synagogue’s budget year, which ends June 30.

“Most people paid their membership commitment before the pandemic,” Lowenstein said. “Unfortunately, we have to send out bills and commitment letters to people next month.

“We know there’s a lot of pain out there. A lot of people have lost their jobs. There’s a lot of financial uncertainty. We’ve done our best guess at a balanced budget, but there are so many unknowns that we have no idea how the next year will shape up.”

Among the unknowns are what accommodations will be needed to keep congregants safe when they return to the synagogue.

“Saving human life is Judaism’s highest commandment,” Lowenstein said. “Once the state says it’s safe to be back in the synagogue, we will slowly reenter. But everything that we did and do, we have to rethink how we deliver it. The fears and anxieties we are wrestling with are incredibly profound and incredibly real. I would say the future of Judaism is a hybrid of what we’re doing now because, in some ways, it’s been incredible to invite people into my living room.”

The Muslim congregation at the Muslim Community Center on the Northwest Side and its sister site, the Muslim Education Center in Morton Grove, have been inviting their imam into their living rooms, unable to observe Ramadan at the center’s two mosques. With prayer services now virtual, nightly prayer at MCC and MEC that accompany the Islamic holy month have been substituted with online morning and evening Ramadan talks.

Kamran Hussain, president of the Muslim Community Center, at the Muslim Education Center mosque in Morton Grove.
Kamran Hussain, president of the Muslim Community Center, at the Muslim Education Center mosque in Morton Grove.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

“The mosque is where the community comes together, but, as Muslims, we can worship anywhere,” said Kamran Hussain, president of the MCC, which also runs a private school and two weekend Islamic schools. “You can still do at home all the things you need to do to be a practicing Muslim.

“To try to find the silver lining in all of this, moving to a virtual space has allowed us to reach people who don’t normally come to the mosque or are not connected to our mosque,” Hussain said.

The pandemic has hit the mosques hard, as 80% of donations came from congregants at services. They recently launched a fundraising campaign through the crowdfunding website LaunchGood and held a virtual fundraiser on YouTube.

“We’ll see how long this lasts,” Hussain said. “Most mosques in Chicago have agreed we’re not going to do anything until Phase 4, when you can have gatherings of up to 50. But even at Phase 4, our Friday prayer can have anywhere from 500 to 1,000 attendees. Trying to control a service with 50 may not be prudent. I don’t know yet how we’ll handle it.”

Those are the kind of issues sure to lead many churches to retain these technological pivots and programming, said the Rev. Theresa Dear, associate minister at DuPage A.M.E. Church in Lisle.

Rev. Theresa Dear, associate minister at DuPage A.M.E. Church in Lisle.
Rev. Theresa Dear, associate minister at DuPage A.M.E. Church in Lisle.
Provided

“What we have come to appreciate is that ministry can be done beyond brick and mortar,” Dear said. “And even though the flock are accustomed to being in a church, we have learned, as a congregation, that God is everywhere, not contained to those parenthetical four walls.”

DuPage A.M.E. easily moved to livestreaming of 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. Sunday services, with 10 celebrants allowed in the sanctuary.

“I really felt for storefront churches in inner-city and rural communities who didn’t have Internet in their buildings,” Dear said. “Their congregations probably turned to online platforms of larger congregations. I imagine we’ll find many of those churches have simply vanished this year or next year.”

DuPage A.M.E. hasn’t been affected financially, Dear said, but is bracing for a hit.

“Our giving has sustained us,” she said. “But anytime we see an economic decline, giving is down in all churches. At the same time, we have people who moved away and can now access us online, and they’re giving.”

Churches should eye the future through the lens of these lessons learned, Dear said.

“Instead of a two-hour service, your members are getting everything in 20 to 30 minutes online, so what is your argument now for keeping them in church for two hours?” she said. “And those young people that churches have been trying to reach for years, they probably caught their attention now in an online context. But how do you keep it? Maybe we need to go to TikTok and Instagram to reach millennials and Generation Z-ers.

“And let’s say hypothetically we are able to go back into church in August. There will be a big rush to get to church. And let’s say in January there is a resurgence of the virus, and we have to go to shelter-in-place again.

“It is super-important now that pastors of all churches reconstitute their church through a technology plan so that, if this happens again before there is a vaccine, they can serve people beyond their area code, ZIP code and geography.”

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