Cornerstone Baptist Church in Woodlawn held a pair of in-person services Sunday, as Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office promised citations Monday for any churches that had violated the stay-at-home order this weekend.
In the past few weeks, several churches in the Chicago area declared their intention to reopen for in-person services, despite Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order forbidding gatherings of more than 10 people. The announcements led Lightfoot into a drawn-out confrontation with the churches, in which — despite her refrain that she would “rather be in conversation than conflict” — she insisted that she would take action against any location that broke the law.
(This weekend, there was at least one attempt to inconvenience a church that opened up: the city put up “no parking” signs outside Elim Romanian Pentecostal in Albany Park, Block Club Chicago reported.)
On Sunday morning, however, there were not any "no parking" signs or police at the corner of 62nd Street and Woodlawn Avenue, where Cornerstone is located. About 30 people came for the in-person service at 10:30 a.m. One man, known as “Mr. Bob,” was too old to be let into the building: he streamed the service in his station wagon from an adjacent lot.
Congregants were greeted at the front doors by church member Marvin Anderson, dressed in a beekeeping suit and wearing a surgical mask. (He bought the suit online last year to protect himself from bees, but hasn't needed to use it until now.)
Anderson asked everyone who entered a set of screening questions, and used a contactless forehead thermometer to perform a temperature check. “If you’re not hitting triple digits, you’re allowed to go in,” he said.
While the service went on at Cornerstone, a member at St. John Baptist Temple the church across the street, was laying out black tape at intervals on the sidewalk outside the building. A church elder told the Herald that congregants were coming to receive communion for the first time since March, with one person let into the church every 15 minutes.
After Cornerstone’s morning service ended, Courtney Lewis, the church’s pastor, defended the decision to gather. “What we did today was a divine mandate, and we will continue to have church services,” he said. “We’re Christians, we’re very peaceable people. That’s all we did today, was peaceably assemble.”
He emphasized that it was simply the church building that had reopened for services — in the weeks before, he had preached to parishioners in the parking lot. “We didn’t reopen today,” he said. “We never closed.”
Lewis also criticized the government for what he perceives as a failure to protect religious rights. “We find our rights in the U.S. Constitution, which tells us that Congress will not establish a state religion or prohibit the free exercise thereof …. As far as where we get those rights from, they’re protected by the U.S. Constitution, but ultimately they’re natural rights that come from God,” he said. “It used to be that our country would protect natural rights, realizing that they came from God, but now we're living in a country that is getting further and further away from protecting our natural rights.”
Lewis declined to elaborate on his statement. First Liberty Institute (FLI), the organization providing legal counsel to CBC and other Illinois churches defying the stay-at-home order, has gained a reputation as a prolific litigant on the conservative side of court cases involving religious freedom issues. The group is perhaps best-known for the “candy cane” case, in which it sued a pair of Texas principals for preventing elementary school students from distributing Christmas goodie bags with religious literature.
"As the government gets bigger, bigger and bigger and gains more power, there is more and more need for protection," FLI’s president, Kelly Shackelford, told the Dallas Morning News in 2011. "As the government grows, it's going to, sometimes by accident or sometimes intentionally, run completely roughshod over freedoms."
Despite the lack of police Sunday, the mayor’s office, in a statement to the Herald, said that it would issue citations to churches that broke the law: "The local (police) districts are reviewing reports of large gatherings that took place yesterday at various establishments not abiding by the Stay at Home order. Following that review, the Department will issue and mail citations where necessary.”
Last week, Lewis sent a letter to parishioners announcing that the church would open up again for in-person service.
“Five Sundays have passed since we last assembled for a regular church service. I am thankful for the live stream capabilities, but in no way, shape, or form do they replace a church service,” wrote Lewis. “My heart has hurt during these last five weeks but I rejoice that we have found a new way to minister to our community by being in the open air. However, I long to see our church body together again.”
Lewis encouraged “more vulnerable” and unwell parishioners to stay home. He also criticized the designation of churches as non-essential institutions under Pritzker’s order, and he told CBC members that they should attend services if they had been frequenting open businesses.
“If you have been to work, to the grocery store, to any other business that has been open, then you should attend. The church building will be no less safe than any of those places,” he wrote. “A week ago, I went to Walgreens with my daughter and I saw that 109 people are allowed in the store at a time. I think we will have a few less than that in the building.”
During a press call Friday afternoon, Mayor Lightfoot noted that, even if older parishioners stay home from church, there is the danger of younger church members passing on the virus. “It’s not just the community spread. It’s asymptomatic people. You can take their temperature, you can ask them the check well-being questions, and the reality is some people will say, ‘I feel fine,’ and still be carriers of the virus,” she said.
Bernard Jakes, pastor of the West Point Baptist Missionary Church, 3566 S. Cottage Grove Ave., said he didn’t expect full church services to return until next year. “Our phases of opening or reopening or entering full capacity must align itself with the state and the city,” he said. “And realistically, I do not see us going back into full capacity until 2021.”
In a letter sent out to religious leaders Thursday, Lightfoot struck a gentler note than usual, invoking the conversations she has had with her own 91-year-old mother about church reopenings. “What I tell her in these conversations, and what I say to you now is that these limitations on our mobility are necessary to save lives,” Lightfoot wrote.
“Just as I have counseled my own beloved mother, I now urge you, stay the course, continue your ministry, but do it consistent with the social distancing guidelines that have made an enormous difference and saved our city from overwhelming our healthcare system, burying even more people, and devastating more families,” the letter continued.
Still, the mayor said she will continue to enforce the order if necessary. “If there is a problem, I would rather be in conversation than in conflict. But to be clear, I am resolute that I must enforce the rules of the governor’s stay at home order,” she wrote. “To be fair to all, I simply cannot look away from non-compliance no matter the source or the intention.”
Marc Monaghan contributed reporting.