The Rev. Marshall Hatch lost his closest friend to the coronavirus on April 1.
“Larry Harris was the best man at my wedding in ‘83, and then 30 years later he was the best man at our renewal,” Hatch said. “We had been best friends for 45 years. He was 62.”
Three days later, Hatch’s older sister died, after suffering in the hospital for eight days with COVID-19. Rhoda Jean Hatch was 73.
“I’m in mourning, you know,” Rev. Hatch said, explaining that he had not shaved for weeks as an expression of his sorrow.
Since Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order in March, hoping to limit the lethal impact of the pandemic, Hatch has held services at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church on Chicago’s West Side in a near-empty church. His congregation can only watch online.
But Hatch said he would not throw open the doors to the church on Sunday, even though the governor relaxed the rules slightly to allow services attended by up to 10 people, effective this weekend.
“It’s just not something I want to do in the name of having church,” Hatch said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
Hatch said he would wait until it clearly is completely safe for everybody to gather. That will not happen, he said, until he sees downtown offices are re-opening to workers and stadiums open to fans for pro sports events.
“We won’t be the first one to open,” he said. “And when we do, it will be a grand opening announcement weeks in advance. We won’t be opening willy-nilly. It’s just not smart.
“The day we open, we’ll have service at 10 o’clock [in the morning] and you can go watch the Cubs that evening or afternoon. You know, it will be obvious that crowds can gather again.”
Latest Pritzker order sparks court fight
Before Pritzker loosened the restrictions on worship services, a church in northwestern Illinois filed a federal lawsuit, saying the limits infringe on constitutionally protected religious rights. The suit was filed by the Beloved Church in Lena.
On Saturday, the judge in the case denied the church’s motion for a temporary restraining order allowing them to hold services on Sunday, despite the governor’s order.
But the church held a service anyway for about 60 to 80 people, according to a spokesman for the congregation. The church provided face coverings and hand sanitizer, and “family units” were spaced six feet apart, the spokesman said.
Asked about the issue with the church at his daily news conference Sunday, Pritzker said, “They shouldn’t have been having services at all, except if they were in groups of 10 or less.”
The initial stay-at-home order was extended through May 30, but the state now allows congregations to gather no more than 10 people at a time as long as the participants keep a distance of six feet between one another. Illinois had been one of just 10 states that didn’t allow communal worship in some form.
Responses to Pritzker’s latest change to the order have varied between faith groups.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago has announced that it plans to take advantage of the governor’s changed stance by resuming Masses and other liturgies, but it has not set a date.
About 40 mosques represented by the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago had agreed not to re-open yet, even if the state said they could, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
On Sunday, Pritzker said he had a message for faith leaders.
“Keeping your parishioners safe is the most important thing you can do,” the governor said. “We’re not stopping you from praying. We’re not stopping you from connecting with your parishioners. What we are trying to stop is the spread of this invisible killer.”
Hatch said the board of his church in the West Garfield Park neighborhood will hold a Zoom meeting on Monday to set up a plan for how they eventually will reopen.
“The criteria are going to be very stringent, I can tell you that,” he said. “Five or 10 things have to happen before we actually have public worship.”
Hatch said he has officiated at some funerals since the pandemic began and found it hard to enforce a limit on attendance. He thinks there were 12 people at one of those funerals if you count a couple people who were “way in the back” of the church at 4301 W. Washington Blvd.
He said large numbers of people, far more than customarily attend his church on any given Sunday, were watching Sunday services online. And the faithful continue to give to their church, he said, despite the deep economic hardships brought on by the pandemic.
“It’s been a really unique opportunity for our church,” Hatch said. “We haven’t missed a beat. I haven’t laid anybody off.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. WBEZ reporter Elliott Ramos and the Associated Press contributed to this story.