NW Side church hold services despite stay-at-home order
by JASON MEREL
The Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church, 4850 N. Bernard St., held two services Sunday, May 10, in an act of defiance of Governor J.B. Pritzker’s order limiting public gatherings during the pandemic, Pastor Cristian Ionescu said.
"When the governor had nothing to say about places of worship in the restoration plan, then told us that we may not get back to normality for a year to a year-and-a-half, that was a death sentence," Ionescu said. "I’m fighting for the life of my congregation because a church cannot survive a year without physical in-person services." He said that this act of defiance was not about money but about faith and that the "generosity of our congregation has not decreased."
Elim Pentecostal is one of six Romanian-American churches to hold services this past Sunday. Ionescu said temperature checks were conducted at the door and hand sanitizer, gloves and masks were given to parishioners. The capacity of the church is 1,300 including overflow rooms with a capacity of 750 in the main sanctuary but he said services were limited to 120 people and there were about 100 people in attendance at each service, including staff and musicians.
The church is planning to move to its new home at 3935 W. Devon Ave. by the fall. Construction of the new church is ongoing. (See photo on the left.)
It was reported that several parishioners removed their masks during the service but Ionescu said a staggered seating arrangement was planned to account for this possibility.
"It is uncomfortable to breathe through a mask," Ionescu said. "Everyone was more than 6 feet apart and no one moved around." He added that the sanctuary seats have very high backs and people were directed to sing facing down towards the floor.
Ionescu said he doesn’t want his message to be confused. He said this is not meant as an act of defiance for its own sake but rather a means to a seat at the decision-making table. Ionescu said church leaders voluntarily closed their doors when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and initial emergency declarations were made but they have not been consulted about how restoration plans, specifically regarding gathering numbers, would account for church reopenings.
Ionescu shared concerns that places of worship are being treated as non-essential.
"We are spiritual first responders," he said. "I’m offering officials a lifeline to show how to work together with communities to move forward. They should trust us that we are competent enough."
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and aldermen reached out on Monday to arrange a future meeting, he said.
"I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the fact that she initiated this," Ionescu said. "I am very open-minded to what she has to say and I hope she is open-minded too. I hope they come to me, not to educate me as the mayor says, but with humility to discuss realistic approaches to reopening places of worship."
"It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re doing. When you gather like this, you are putting yourself and your loved ones in serious danger," Lightfoot said on Twitter regarding the services. She had said that she would not send officers to arrest parishioners at future services.
Ionescu has a slightly different perspective on the matter than some other religious leaders. He said he came to America in 1987 from Romania as a religious refugee, escaping persecution from local officials.
Several local religious leaders were reached for comment and all agreed that while the current situation isn’t ideal, the restoration plan is not a "death sentence" for churches.
"We miss each other, we’re a congregation that hugs," Congregational Church of Jefferson Park Pastor Gayle Tucker said. "We’re certainly seeing the effects of canceling our spring fund-raisers but our congregation has been very supportive and the church will be okay."
Tucker said services have been conducted via Zoom, which has presented new challenges such as sorting out licensing for music but has otherwise sufficed, and will continue until the end of the stay-at-home order.
Redeemer of Calvary Methodist Church Pastor Shirley Hughes said the church has also been conducting services via Zoom and per their bishop’s orders, the church will remain closed for in-person worship until the end of the order.
Eden United Church of Christ Pastor Jacki Belile said that she wishes the numbers on the capacity recommendations were given more consideration but Eden has been in compliance with state orders from the beginning and virtual services will continue until the end of the stay-at-home order. Belile added that Eden is planning to open the sanctuary by appointment only, starting Monday, May 18, to allow people to enter for individual prayer.
"I respect the people trying to sort through how to be safe," Belile said. "It’s important to remember that there is more than one measure of health. There’s physical health and then there’s spiritual and emotional health."