In better days, members of the Metro Praise International Church, a largely young, Latino church in a working-class neighborhood of Chicago, regularly headed out in their “gospel truck” to evangelize, wearing black T-shirts bearing the slogan “Chicago for Jesus” written in a cross decorated like the city’s flag. But in this moment of crisis, the roughly 300-person church was resolute: It would close. “It wasn’t even a second thought,” the pastor, Joe Wyrostek, told me this week. “There was zero defiance.” A number of congregants have contracted the virus.
By the end of April, after seven weeks of online-only services, however, Wyrostek grew skeptical of the limits imposed by Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. A state stay-at-home order, which was lifted May 28, limited religious gatherings to 10 people practicing social distancing. Officials strongly encourage churches to stay online or host drive-in worship. “Our folks were like, ‘What in the world?’ Other states were already allowing their churches to be considered essential,” Wyrostek said. On May 3, Wyrostek posted a sermon on Facebook titled “A Christian Response to Tyranny.” “The tyrannical never start off as they end,” the pastor said, standing in front of a row of self-authored books about living a faithful life. “In this situation, [tyranny] was promising you safety for the exchange of your religious freedom and your financial freedom. And it was violating the Constitution and violating the Bible.” The church hosted an in-person service the next week.
In our conversation, Wyrostek was worried about being associated with pastors who claimed that God would protect them from the virus, no matter what. “It’s not that we feel we have to do this in some kind of reckless way to achieve something with God, as if we are from a cult that thinks mindlessly about our practices,” he said. Wyrostek’s Facebook page is full of CDC statistics, which he points to as evidence that it’s safe for young people to gather at church. “Yes, we pastors can actually read scientific journals, review data, and relate information outside of Noah’s Ark,” he wrote. His church has looked to the CDC’s guidelines for houses of worship on gathering safely, including spacing out seats and providing hand sanitizer. Only about a third of the church’s members have been coming to its weekly services.
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Government officials in Chicago and Illinois have said it’s still not safe for churches in the city to meet in groups larger than 10 people. On Thursday, the state issued new guidelines for faith communities that want to meet in larger numbers, in response to a Supreme Court challenge brought by two Chicago churches. But leaders have been reluctant to allow religious gatherings; last week, Lightfoot said Trump’s call to open churches was “dangerous and foolish.” In May, the city cracked down on noncompliant congregations: Metro Praise International was fined and threatened with more severe penalties. On the first two Sundays after it reopened, Metro Praise also faced significant backlash from its neighbors, Wyrostek told me. One woman stood outside the church and held up a sign that read You killed my grandma.