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Facing fines and threat of closure, churches continue to hold services: ‘There is not going to be a stand down’

Despite a harsh new warning from Chicago’s public health chief, two Chicago churches defiantly held services Sunday in violation of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order.

Members of Elim Romaninan Pentecostal Church attend service on May 24, 2020. The church is one of the churches across Chicago that are defying Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s shelter-in-place order, which limits in-person worship to 10 people. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Members of Elim Romaninan Pentecostal Church attend service on Sunday, May 24, 2020. It is among the churches across Chicago that are defying Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s shelter-in-place order, which limits in-person worship to 10 people.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Two Chicago churches continued to hold services Sunday after city officials fined each of them last week for violating Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s current stay-at-home order by hosting more than 10 people and later ordered the houses of worship to stop holding gatherings or face more severe penalties.

Dr. Allison Arwady, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, sent letters Saturday to Metro Praise International Church in Belmont Cragin, Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church in Albany Park and Philadelphia Romanian Church in Ravenswood warning that future violations could result in a church being “declared a public health nuisance” and potentially closed.

While all three churches were fined $500 last week for holding services and are now subject to additional penalties, Metro Praise and Elim Romanian remained defiant and welcomed worshippers Sunday. A statement on Philadelphia Romanian’s Facebook page said in-person services had been suspended until May 31, though a choir, band and multiple speakers appeared in an online mass.

Cristian Ionescu, pastor of Elim Romanian, said he worries that the “summary abatement” threatened in Arwady’s letter could lead to his church being demolished “without due process.”

Cristian Ionescu, senior pastor of Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church, speaks at a press conference with Pastor Brian Gibson of Peaceably Gather after a service on May 24, 2020. Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church is one of the churches across Chicago that are defying Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s shelter-in-place order, which limits in-worship services to 10 people. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Cristian Ionescu, senior pastor of Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church, speaks at a news conference with Pastor Brian Gibson of Peaceably Gather after a service on Sunday, May 24, 2020.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“There is not going to be a stand down from our part. It’s only the city that escalates,” Ionescu told reporters after hosting upwards of 100 people in church Sunday. “When they threaten us with such extreme measures, what else is left?”

Though Chicago’s municipal code allows discretion in determining what form of abatement is necessary, a spokesman for Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city “doesn’t intend to demolish churches without due process or in any fashion in response to the violations of the stay-at-home order.” However, additional legal action could be taken “to protect the health of our residents,” he said.

The battle over whether to reopen churches escalated Friday when President Donald Trump deemed all places of worship “essential” and called on state leaders to allow services. Pritzker later noted that Illinois would “continue to operate on the basis of science and data,” while Lightfoot slammed Trump’s remarks and said they fell in line with other “dangerous and foolish” statements he’s made.

Joseph Wyrostek, pastor of Metro Praise, said he and other leaders are “deeply upset that our governor and mayor would not concede that they have overstepped their bounds with our constitutional rights.”

A member of Metro Praise International stands by the door of the church as a service take place on May 24, 2020. The church is one of the churches across Chicago that are defying Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s shelter-in-place order, which limits in-person worship to 10 people. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
A member of Metro Praise International stands by the door of the church as a service take place on Sunday, May 24, 2020.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Wyrostek’s church on Sunday invited philanthropist and businessman Willie Wilson, who has drawn Pritzker’s ire for publicly supporting pastors seeking to reopen and paid the fines for all three churches that were recently cited. During the service, Wilson pledged to pay up to $1 million to cover fines for all churches in Illinois that face similar citations and gave Wysrostek a $5,000 check “to pay whatever fines that he needs to pay.”

“Yeah, give me a fine,” goaded 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. “I’d rather take mankind’s fine than take Jesus’ fine.”

In the wake of Trump’s declaration, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued new guidance for communities of faith that are “scaling up operations.” Those recommendations were released just days after the CDC issued a report detailing how two symptomatic people spread COVID-19 at a series of church events in early March in Arkansas.

Thirty-five of the 92 attendees at the event were later diagnosed with coronavirus, and 26 related cases were identified during contact tracing efforts, the CDC said. All told, four people died.

In addition to noting that Chicago’s COVID-19 fatalities include three faith leaders and “many more congregants” linked to outbreaks, Arwady referenced the transmissions in Arkansas. Brian Gibson, a megachurch pastor with locations in Kentucky and Texas, claimed the CDC report is “total propaganda” after speaking Sunday at Elim Pentecostal.

Pastor Brian Gibson, founder of Peaceably Gather, expresses his support for Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church on May 24, 2020. The church is one of the churches across Chicago that are defying Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s shelter-in-place order, which limits in-person worship to 10 people. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Pastor Brian Gibson, founder of Peaceably Gather, expresses his support for Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church on Sunday, May 24, 2020.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“It’s an agenda. It’s governors who do not like our message, do not like our voice,” said Gibson, who has started the Peaceably Gather movement to reopen houses of worship. “It’s not just about the freedom of religion, it’s about the freedom of speech. They want a turn off our opposing viewpoint button.”

First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based nonprofit with ties to Trump that’s offering legal support to Gibson’s movement, has been characterized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an “anti-LGBT and anti-choice group.” Pressed on the fact that the report in question was issued by Trump’s administration, Gibson claimed “the CDC has an agenda as well.”

“That agenda, with the CDC, I believe it’s controlling the American people. I believe it’s keeping America quiet until the next election cycle.”