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Faith Leaders Face Decisions On How And When To Open

Brooke Road United Methodist Facebook page

State and local leaders are making decisions every day about the COVID-19 pandemic that are met with praise and criticism.  In this segment of "The Hot Seat," we hear from a pair of faith leaders about the decisions ahead.

IDPH: Places of Worship Guidance

Pastor Antwon Funches of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Freeport is reaching congregants virtually these days. That includes Facebook Live services with a skeleton crew. He expects that will be the case for at least another month as they prepare the building.

“We've already sectioned off our site for six foot social distancing,” Funches said. “We've already made provisions for hand sanitizers and things of that nature, sanitizing stations, we will be checking temperatures as people enter the building. We will not reopen just because some guys that sit in the White House or sit in the governor's mansion tell us to do so. No, I have a responsibility to my congregation to make sure that their place of worship is safe to worship.”

He says it would be irresponsible to come back right now.

“When you think in terms of the African American community, we are disproportionately affected by this virus,” Funches said. “We don't have that health care structure in place where if someone did contract the virus, they will be able to go and get tested immediately. That's not in place for us. And so with those factors, it just makes more sense for me to be more cognizant of my congregation than what someone else is doing. I'm not really responsible for other congregations-- just mine.”

Violet Johnicker is a pastor at Brooke Road United Methodist Church in Rockford. She says her church is following guidance from a larger governing structure within the denomination’s northern Illinois conference, which represents about the top third of the state. She says there is not a “reopening” committee; rather, they have a newly formed “health team.”

“But by calling it the 'health team,' we are naming that our priority is health and safety,” Johnicker said. “The founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, is known for having three simple rules. They are: ‘Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.’ And a lot of our church leadership has been reminding us of that 'Do no harm' is our very first rule, the most basic thing we can do is not cause harm.”

Johnicker says they have also leaned on social media for worship services and Bible studies.

“One of the ways that I am convinced that we can show 'love of neighbor' right now is to keep our church building closed,” Johnicker said. “And I recognize that not all Christians and not all religious folks would agree with that. I think people have very good intentions and wanting to make sure that they can worship together. I also believe deeply that worship spaces are sacred. I really miss being in the building where my son was baptized and where I have had the great honor of officiating over funerals and helping people to grieve in really difficult times. But part of what goes into my decision making right now is the very hard, literal truth that I don't want to do more funerals.”

She says spaces for fellowship beyond the worship services themselves have also emerged -- her church family has been chatting informally during “Lunch with Lincoln” events on Facebook and they’ve given her tips on starting a vegetable garden.

“I just think language matters so much here when people have been saying things like churches are closed.” Johnicker said. “That's just not true. Church buildings are closed, but the church has left the building for a while. The church’s online, the church’s on the phone, the church’s out in the community. Our congregation is still doing incredible mission work.”

Pastor Funches says not every decision will be met with unanimous support.

“That means I'm in good company. Every decision Jesus made, he was always met with some type of praise or criticism,” Funches said.

And Funches says it hasn’t slowed down the message.

Jenna Dooley has spent her professional career in public radio. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University and the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois - Springfield. She returned to Northern Public Radio in DeKalb after several years hosting Morning Edition at WUIS-FM in Springfield. She is a former "Newsfinder of the Year" from the Illinois Associated Press and recipient of NIU's Donald R. Grubb Journalism Alumni Award. She is an active member of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association and an adjunct instructor at NIU.
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