All of our funds are basically going in and out toward helping everybody else,” said Pastor Corey Brooks of New Beginnings Church of Chicago. From providing mental health services to donating food and masks, South Side pastors have been working tirelessly to serve both the practical and spiritual needs of their communities in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Yet churches are not immune to the effects of the pandemic: smaller churches, many of which are anxiously waiting to hear back from grant and loan applications, have been struggling to pay their staff and to meet other parts of their budget. Despite these deep financial challenges, these churches are still dedicating what scant resources they have to continue to serve needs in their community.
New Beginnings, a nondenominational church located in Woodlawn, has lost at least thirty percent of their funding since the onset of the pandemic. The church has been forced to reduce pay for each of its eleven staff members in order to avoid laying anyone off. And the church’s non-profit, Project H.O.O.D., which works to end violence and generational poverty in the Englewood and Woodlawn communities, will likely have to miss its June fundraiser, which typically provides $500,000 to $800,000 of its budget.
New Beginnings is still waiting for a response from the federal small business loan program. Federal assistance to churches is controversial, and some advocates say the federal program violates the Constitutional prohibition of an “establishment of religion.” Without external support, however, some churches have already had to make hard choices. Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, a Bronzeville church known for its gospel program, has had to temporarily furlough two of their three janitors while awaiting a response from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.
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By contrast, churches that have been able to access federal support tend to be doing well. Saint Columbanus, a Catholic parish in Park Manor, has seen its financial situation stay stable, thanks to the small business loan and an increase in tithes and online giving. As a result, it has continued to operate its food pantry at the same capacity as it was before the pandemic, serving approximately 400-500 people per week. Second Presbyterian Church, located in the South Loop, hasn’t been quite so lucky; before the pandemic, the church relied on building rentals for twenty percent of their revenue, averaging four rentals a day to community groups. While the loss of this stable source of income has been “very stressful,” according to Pastoral Assistant Leslie Deslauriers, and total giving has dropped by about twenty percent, the church has been able to retain all of its staff with no cuts in pay thanks to the support of the CARES Act.
Without some financial support, some smaller churches may not make it through the crisis. Trinity Resurrection United Church, a Methodist church in South Chicago, is struggling to pay the bills. The church only had about fifty members before the onset of the pandemic, and now that number has been reduced to twenty-five; some have stopped giving tithes, especially older members who are not used to technology like Cash App and PayPal, and some have passed away from COVID-19. Many of their members are limited in the donations they can provide, and on the forefront of Minister Shirley Davis’s mind is just paying the church’s monthly bills: light, gas, phone, internet, and insurance. It has not been able to pay its staff. “We just can’t afford to,” said Davis. And if the church can’t continue to make improvements to its building to meet state and federal codes, it will have to close. While it has attempted to seek financial help, the church was denied for the SBA grant, which included PPE equipment; without these resources, it has been unable to reopen their food pantry.
Several churches have faced trouble paying their staff. The ten full-time staff members of Another Chance Church, a nondenominational church located in Roseland, are still working eight hours a day but are only being paid for four. Pastor Kenyatta D. Smith wonders how long he will be able to ask people to continue the work they’re doing for half the pay, but says they are driven by their desire to respond to a critical need in the surrounding community. “We’re barely making it, but we’re doing it by faith because our community really needs help,” said Smith.
A continued focus on community service has defined almost every church the Weekly spoke to for this story. “It’s very arduous to see funding going to places that are not getting to our community,” Smith explained. “So we have seniors and displaced people that have not even gotten their unemployment in a situation now where they need help.” Smith and her staff at Another Chance are particularly worried about seniors who live alone and may have no access to food; in one instance, a ninety-eight-year-old had not eaten for two days before they got in contact with him. Through their program Operation Feeding Families, which was created in response to the pandemic, Another Chance has given away about 300 boxes of food, each of which will last a family two weeks. “For our community, we’re the biggest source of help, especially for our seniors right now,” said Smith.
Other churches are pursuing similar efforts. Second Presbyterian has continued its lunch bag program, which provides an average of thirty-five people per day with food, masks, and hygiene products. Its South Loop Community Table, which takes place on Sunday nights and used to include clothing, hygiene products, free haircuts, and doctor visits, has been reduced to a grab-and-go meal. But it is still able to serve about forty people per week, and this number has continued to increase.
Even Trinity Resurrection, one of the hardest-hit churches, still has volunteers working remotely to process Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program applications for clients from across Cook County. Prior to the onset of the pandemic, they were able to assist about 600 applicants. Now that they are working remotely, they have assisted a little over a hundred people, and their phone continues to ring non-stop. The program will run until June 30, and they have begun working on Saturdays to increase the amount of people they can assist. “Our community depends on our services and without them, families will suffer. However, I’m afraid without grant support we may have to remove some of our services due to financial constraints,” said Davis, the church’s minister.
Apart from their service to the broader community, several churches have also been forced to dedicate extensive resources to pastoral care. A team at New Beginnings calls each of the 1,000 people within the congregation every week to ensure that everyone’s needs are being met, especially their senior members. To address the needs that were relayed through these phone calls, a team at the church has conducted over fifty grocery pickups and deliveries for members of the congregation. They also send out a text message every other day, reminding each person to call or email if they have a need. Saint Columbanus has a similar program, calling each of their parishioners, approximately 450 people, every week in case anyone has a need; in one instance they shared with the Weekly, they were able to deliver stamps to an older parishioner so that she could pay her bills. At New Beginnings, both Brooks and Pastor TJ Grooms provide counseling over Zoom. Ebenezer Baptist takes it a step further; besides traditional pastoral counseling, the church is also offering a virtual mental health counselor to provide support to members of the community.
At some churches, caring for their community just means maintaining a sense of normalcy. “People are very afraid. They’re scared, they don’t know if their family’s going to be impacted, they’re concerned about the disparities as relates to African Americans and the disease, there’s concern about national leadership. So we’re all working to try to be an inspiration to help people through this difficult time,” said Ebenezer Baptist Pastor Darryl N. Person. Ebenezer has focused on conducting worship services online and supporting the church’s famous musicians during the pandemic, allowing them to “provide something meaningful even in the midst of the distance, because the church, in a very real sense, is not about a building, it’s about the collection of people who have decided to partner in faith and develop spiritually.” But Ebenezer, like most churches, continues to do some of the old-fashioned community outreach: in partnership with nearby Metropolitan Community Church, it has donated a hundred masks to the University of Chicago Hospital.
Many larger churches like Saint Columbanus, especially those with pre-existing virtual infrastructure, have had an easier time transitioning. Their size and resources have helped avoid any serious financial trouble and have allowed them to explore new avenues of community support during the pandemic.
Apostolic Faith Church, located in Bronzeville, had both set up online giving and promoted it to its congregation long before the onset of the pandemic. As a result, their giving has been consistent. “I think that when your members know you’re still doing ministry, it’s easier for them, even if they’re struggling, to give and make sure they’re supporting the people who need it,” said Lauren Elrod, the church’s marketing director.
The church’s pastor, Dr. Horace Smith, doesn’t hold a doctorate in theology —he’s also a hematologist at Lurie Children’s Hospital. He has used this unique position as both a pastor and a physician to inform other pastors and the church community about health and safety during the COVID-19 crisis. He has conducted nationwide church Facebook Lives with other pastors and ministers to help inform the religious community about the seriousness of the pandemic. “We’re giving people the faith reasons to stay encouraged but also the scientific reasons to be healthy,” said Elrod. The church has hosted Dr. Janice Jackson, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, during Sunday service to discuss what parents and educators can be doing during this time.
Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, a large church located in Pullman, had the strongest pre-existing virtual infrastructure of all the churches interviewed by the Weekly. They had been on television for about fifteen years, streaming on their website for at least eight years, and using Facebook Live for about four years. They also have five staff members on the media team. “I know a lot of other churches who didn’t have the capability to go live, or the staffing. It was a lot more seamless for us in that area,” said Jasmine Meeks, the church’s marketing and communication director.
Prominent community and political leaders have been playing a crucial informative and encouraging role in this church’s efforts. Before the pandemic, Salem Baptist Church, whose pastor and founder is former state Senator James T. Meeks, had a broadcast every night on WJYS, which would play old sermons. It now hosts a program called Faith in Crisis, which broadcasts a live service every evening. It has used this platform to both inform and comfort its audience, hosting Mayor Lori Lightfoot, U.S. Representative Robin Kelly, doctors, preachers, and therapists. The church also hosts Virtual Growth Night Classes via Zoom every night, including courses like “Understanding and Managing your Credit in a Pandemic” and “Staying Emotionally Healthy in a Pandemic.” There are over 1,000 people registered, significantly more than were able to show up in person. On any given Sunday, there are over 2,000 people watching their service live through Facebook, YouTube, and their website. “The people on our stream are a family,” said Jasmine. “If they don’t see someone checking in, they will notice that that screen name hasn’t checked in in a couple weeks and check in on them and make sure they’re okay. It’s special to see. They remember each other, they give follow ups and praise reports and prayer requests, they have a whole prayer chain that they have started by themselves, they will invite people to watch, just like someone would invite a visitor to come to church with them.”
Because of the strength of its existing virtual infrastructure and the size of their congregation and staff—it had approximately 4,000 weekly attenders and forty staff members—Salem Baptist has been able to thrive in the midst of this pandemic. This success has even allowed it to use its experience and resources to help smaller churches by assisting them with streaming and offering to host conferences or classes. It has continued to pay every staff member, even those who are no longer able to work. They have donated 1,000 masks to members of the Roseland community, and at the time of the interview were planning to partner with Dr. Willie Wilson to distribute thousands more. It was also planning to donate 500 food boxes to members of the Roseland community, and worked with local radio stations to host a citywide memorial to honor over 200 people who had passed away. The memorial was widely inclusive; they simply told people to submit names to their website and received submissions from some people who were not even in Illinois.
While these churches have been working tirelessly to support their communities during this time of crisis, many have also begun to discuss what the transition will look like once they can begin to host in-person services again. While a handful of churches held services on May 17, most were fined for violating the stay-at-home order, and most others are waiting for official approval to resume services. They all emphasized the need for effective and abundant cleaning supplies. Representatives from Apostolic Faith Church and New Beginnings Church both suggested hosting services multiple times per week in order to keep the number of people in a building under fifty, and Apostolic Faith has also considered conducting service in the parking lot when everyone is in their parked cars. For churches with larger venues, the capacity for social distancing may make the transition a little easier; Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church’s facility can seat 1,100 people, and Salem Baptist Church’s facility holds 10,000. Salem Baptist is even reconsidering the way they conduct church. “We are definitely adjusting our thinking. Now people are seeing how important technology is in the landscape of church today. I think every church is going to have to get on board with some means of technology to do ministry moving forward,” said Jasmine Meeks.
Despite the immense challenges that many of these churches are facing, pastors remain hopeful about the future. Brooks of New Beginnings hopes that this crisis may have a lasting positive impact on the church. “It’s going to give us avenues that we have never used before to have to stay in contact with people, and so it’s equipping us in a way that we were not equipped before. So hopefully when the pandemic is over, we can still use these tools to reach even a broader audience.” Deslauriers of Second Presbyterian believes that in the midst of handling these challenges, churches will realize “what ministries they’ve been doing really matter, and which ones they’ve been holding on to just for tradition’s sake.”
“We recognize that you have to be flexible and nimble enough to meet the challenges that you face,” said Person of Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church. “We know that we hopefully will be getting back in June, July, and should that happen we’re going to be ready and it’s going to be a wonderful celebration.”
Madeleine Parrish grew up in New Jersey and is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago studying political science. This is her first story for the Weekly.