Eastern Christian Churches Grapple With Coronavirus Reality On Their Easter

St. Odisho Church coronavirus
Priests at St. Odisho Church on Chicago's Northwest Side give drive-thru communion to motorists in the church's parking lot on Saturday, April 18, 2020. Dan Mihalopoulos / WBEZ
St. Odisho Church coronavirus
Priests at St. Odisho Church on Chicago's Northwest Side give drive-thru communion to motorists in the church's parking lot on Saturday, April 18, 2020. Dan Mihalopoulos / WBEZ

Eastern Christian Churches Grapple With Coronavirus Reality On Their Easter

On Saturday evening, on a relatively quiet stretch of Pulaski Road, there briefly was something you don’t see much during the coronavirus pandemic in Chicago.

A traffic back-up.

Dozens of cars were in line, their drivers waiting for a chance to pull into the parking lot of St. Odisho Church of the East, at 6201 N. Pulaski, for what essentially amounted to drive-thru communion on the eve of their Easter.

Like other Eastern Christian faithful, the Assyrian immigrant church on the Northwest Side is celebrating Easter this year on Sunday, a week after Roman Catholics and Protestants. And like people of every religion, the parishioners of St. Odisho could not attend services as they normally would, because of Illinois’ month-old stay-at-home order.

But on Saturday, a priest stood in the parking lot of St. Odisho in black vestments and a light-blue surgical mask. He passed bread and Easter vigil candles into the windows of the cars of his parishioners, including Henry Bobo of Skokie.

Bobo said he thought it was “absolutely” safe to venture out of his home and go to his church for communion bread because, he said, “I believe in Christ.” He said he had no worries of possibly contracting the coronavirus at St. Odisho.

“Oh, no, no, no,” Bobo said. “God is with me. I’m not afraid.”

Police broke up a funeral at the church late last month, after Gov. JB Pritzker had instituted the stay-at-home order.

On Saturday, a man directing traffic at the entrance to the church parking lot said the parish’s alderman had approved the drive-through communion event. The alderman, Samantha Nugent, 39th Ward, said she had not given any sort of approval.

And a spokeswoman for the state’s public health department said it appeared the church was violating the order, which is intended to curb the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

“The governor has issued a stay-at-home order,” the spokeswoman told WBEZ. “This would not be considered staying at home.”

St. Odisho Church communion coronavirus
Motorists wait in line for communion in the parking lot of St. Odisho Church on the eve of Easter for Eastern Christians. Dan Mihalopoulos / WBEZ

Leaders of a major Eastern Christian denomination here — the Greek Orthodox Church — said they are strictly complying with the governor’s order.

“As an institution that has been around for 2,000 years, we understand the responsibility that we have for the world,” said Metropolitan Nathanael, the Greek Orthodox bishop in Chicago. “We do not live in a bubble. We are not more important than our neighbor.”

He directed the 62 parishes he oversees in the Midwest to close to the public a week before the governor’s order, on the advice of medical experts.

But Nathanael said he received blowback from what he described as fundamentalist Greek Orthodox Christians. Some parishioners and priests lobbied him to re-open on a limited basis for Easter.

And he said he caught some Greek Orthodox from the Chicago area sneaking up to a monastery in Wisconsin to attend a Lenten service there a couple weeks ago.

“There’s no place for that in the church,” he said. “There’s no place for that in society.”

The priests at the Greek Orthodox churches here have been performing the ancient Holy Week rites as usual — but lay people can only watch online.

The situation was the same in Greece, where the government has been enforcing a strict lockdown that’s credited with limiting the number of deaths from COVID-19.

Late Saturday night, at the St. George parish in Lincoln Park, two priests and a chanter sang as hundreds of people watched from home — on Facebook.

As church bells rang, the priests sang in Greek: “Christ is risen from the dead. By death, he trampled upon death and bestowed life to those in the tombs.”

Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter at WBEZ.