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Rapid spread of COVID-19 leads some Chicago churches to make virtual plans for New Year’s Eve, January

The surge of coronavirus cases comes as some African American churches prepare to honor Watch Night, or Freedom’s Eve, during New Year’s Eve religious services.

The Rev. Chris Harris, of Bright Star Church, made the upcoming New Year’s Eve services virtual as coronavirus cases continue to increase. Harris, who first announced the change in an online video, said he has seen people ranging from children to seniors test positive for the virus.
The Rev. Chris Harris, of Bright Star Church, made the upcoming New Year’s Eve services virtual as coronavirus cases continue to increase. Harris, who first announced the change in an online video, said he has seen people ranging from children to seniors test positive for the virus.
Screenshot

At least four churches in Chicago are opting for virtual New Year’s Eve services as the number of coronavirus cases are on the rise — again.

In Bronzeville, the Rev. Chris Harris of Bright Star Church is making services set for New Year’s Eve and the first Sunday of the new year virtual. He also canceled a New Year’s Eve party that the church’s Bright Star Community Outreach organization had planned in downtown Chicago that was expected to draw 700 people, he said.

Harris, who also leads the congregation of St. James Ministries in West Pullman, shifted to virtual worship as he saw how quickly COVID-19 — possibly because of the Omicron variant — has been spreading. Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the state’s top health official, earlier this week said Illinois is seeing the highest surge in coronavirus cases that it’s seen throughout the entire pandemic.

“Seniors, adults, youth, as well as babies — countless numbers of people that I have the privilege to lead have gotten COVID,” he said. “And what’s been challenging is the fact that these are not only people who are not vaccinated — these are also people who are fully vaccinated.”

The surge comes as the African American community prepares to honor Watch Night, or Freedom’s Eve, in New Year’s Eve religious services. The tradition dates back to Dec. 31, 1862, when enslaved and free African Americans waited for the new year so that President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation could go into effect, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Today, people still observe Watch Night and see it as a symbol of the promise of a new year, said Frazlier Pope III, the executive pastor at the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church.

“We wait for this promise of a new year that new things can happen,” Pope said. “Hope is on the other side of the horizon of midnight.”

Fellowship Church will again make its three New Year’s Eve services virtual because of the uptick in COVID-19 cases, Pope said. He stressed that people don’t need to be in a certain space to observe Watch Night.

On Tuesday, the Apostolic Faith Church in Bronzeville also decided to make its Watch Night service virtual, said Dr. Horace Smith, the senior pastor.

More than 90% of its members have been inoculated, as Smith has made getting vaccinated his mantra. But the popularity of the Watch Night service could have created an increase risk of transmission because it typically draws people who don’t regularly attend the church to reflect on the year with personal testimonials, he said.

“If it was mainly our people, I probably would not have canceled it, but I think people are anxious about it,” Smith said. “They see the numbers so I think it’s the prudent thing to do.”

Pastor Horace Smith, of Apostolic Faith Church, is pictured on Nov. 24, 2017, in the church’s sanctuary that can seat 3,000.
Pastor Horace Smith, of Apostolic Faith Church, is pictured on Nov. 24, 2017, in the church’s sanctuary that can seat 3,000.
Leslie Adkins/For the Sun-Times

Apostolic Faith Church will film portions of the service ahead of time and livestream the rest in real time on social media, Smith said.

The church will return to in-person services after New Year’s Eve, but it will likely include additional guidelines for those attending in person, Smith said. The church had already asked everyone who attended to disclose their vaccination status, but it will add additional questions about their health, he said.

Beyond New Year’s Eve, Pope said the congregation at Fellowship likely won’t return to in-person services again until they get guidance from the city that indicates the spread of the virus has eased.

“What we want people to do during this time is to go get vaccinated; we want them to get their booster shots; we want them to wear their masks,” Pope said. “We want them to do their best to protect their family and friends.”

Harris, of Bright Star Church, said they plan to open a COVID-19 testing site next week in the back of the Bronzeville church that he would like to eventually also include vaccinations.

Apostolic Faith Church, through a partnership with Walgreens, offers COVID-19 vaccines every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Smith said anyone from the public can walk into the church this Sunday to get any vaccine dose.

Smith, who is also a physician at Lurie Children’s Hospital, said he’s particularly concerned about the low vaccination rate among children as pediatric hospitalizations have increased in recent weeks.

“That’s a population that, again, we need to target because they don’t get as sick, but they can transmit the virus,” Smith said. “It’s those kinds of nuances that’s going to make us probably change and modify what we do for Sunday mornings.”

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.