‘No One Has Stopped Anyone From Worshiping’: Religious Leaders Defend Pandemic Restrictions

Caption: L. Bernard Jakes, pastor of West Point Baptist Church in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, is seen here on May 16 preparing for Sunday service.
L. Bernard Jakes, pastor of West Point Baptist Church in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, is seen here on May 16 preparing for Sunday service.
Caption: L. Bernard Jakes, pastor of West Point Baptist Church in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, is seen here on May 16 preparing for Sunday service.
L. Bernard Jakes, pastor of West Point Baptist Church in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, is seen here on May 16 preparing for Sunday service.

‘No One Has Stopped Anyone From Worshiping’: Religious Leaders Defend Pandemic Restrictions

As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, some churches in Illinois — and across the country — are defying stay-at-home orders and even suing for their right to gather in large groups. But many in the Chicago area are following the law — even citing their faith as a reason to be cautious.

Pastor L. Bernard Jakes of West Point Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side said churches defying local and state officials’ stay-at-home orders are in the minority — similar to the protestors who are calling for the reopening of the economy even as the number of COVID-19 deaths and cases continue to climb.

He said church leaders citing the First Amendment as a reason to reconvene congregations larger than 10 are “[misinterpreting] their idea of religious freedom.”

“No one’s religious freedoms have been sat upon, no one’s religious freedom has been taken away,” Jakes said.

West Point’s congregation of about 750 members have been tuning into Facebook Live for Sunday worship and gathering for discussions over Zoom.

“No one has stopped anyone from worshiping,” Jakes said. “We have to worship in a different way, in a different location, but we have not stopped worshiping. We’ve not stopped fellowshipping; we just don’t do it in the building.”

Jakes said his church has established a COVID-19 task force that includes church members who work in public health and health care. He said the task force will help him make a decision on when to reopen the church, following state and local guidelines.

On the West Side, Daniel Hill, pastor of River City Community Church in West Humboldt Park, said not being able to gather as a church has been difficult.

“That’s so much the core of what the church is, being together as a people, so we’re all having a hard time with it,” Hill said. “But we also recognize the immense risks that come with it — somebody in our congregation just died this week, quite possibly because of COVID.”

Hill also said that churches should focus on helping the disadvantaged during this crisis.

“Authentic church work should always have a focus on those who are most vulnerable, those who are … affected by poverty,” he said. “We see that as a central tenet of ‘loving your neighbor as yourself.’”

Hill said his church has food distribution and rent assistance programs in place for members who are experiencing economic hardship during the pandemic.

Kifah Mustapha, the imam and director of The Prayer Center of Orland Park in the southwest suburbs, said not being able to gather during the holy month of Ramadan has been particularly hard.

“Ramadan, for us, is a social, spiritual period of time,” he said, adding that this month is also when mosques and relief agencies receive donations “for the whole year because that’s when people contribute.”

Mustapha said his mosque is livestreaming nightly prayers during Ramadan, in addition to the weekly sermons.

He said mosques will take extra precautions before opening their doors to crowds because of the way Muslims worship.

“Our prayers include people taking off their shoes, standing next to each other shoulder to shoulder, bowing down and prostrating on the floor,” he said. “Even as the governor allows [houses of worship] to open, we will [likely] be the last ones.”

Still, Mustapha disagrees with those who are suing the governor.

“I would advise any pastor or priest or minister, the last thing you want is to stand in front of God, and the judgment is that you were the reason for someone to get sick and die because of your service,” he said. “The preservation of the human being is more precious to God.”

Mustapha, who has lost many congregants to COVID-19, said he has been in touch with other imams in the area, and that most of them are “all in the same boat.”

Rabbi Rachel Weiss of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston said most synagogues, too, are choosing to wait to reopen.

“The primary reason we exist is for communities to gather together and to experience fellowship and spirituality … and it’s really painful that we can’t do that right now,” Weiss said. “But I would much rather be leading a service on Zoom or on Facebook Live than leading a funeral in person of one of my congregants who died because we didn’t keep each other safe.”

Weiss said churches’ First Amendment rights “have to be looked at in the context of the greater common good.”

She added, “We’re all on a boat together, and [those who are calling for churches to reopen] are saying, ‘It’s my right to drill a hole under only my feet.’ What will happen, of course, is that the boat will flood and everyone will drown.”

In a letter to faith leaders on May 14, Mayor Lori Lightfoot asked churches, mosques and synagogues to continue following the state’s stay-at-home order.

In recent days, numerous churches across the country have filed lawsuits in defiance of their state’s — or city’s — stay-at-home orders.

On Saturday, a federal judge in North Carolina approved a restraining order that will allow houses of worship to reopen all across the state.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang