Rapid spread of COVID-19 leads some churches in Chicago to make virtual plans for New Years Eve, January

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At least four Chicago churches are opting for virtual New Years Eve services as the number of coronavirus cases is on the rise again.

In Bronzeville, Reverend Chris Harris of Bright Star Church is making services for New Years Eve and the first Sunday of the New Year virtual. He also canceled a New Years party that the church’s Bright Star Community Outreach organization had planned in downtown Chicago that was expected to draw 700 people, he said.

Harris, who also heads the St. James Ministries congregation in West Pullman, switched to virtual worship seeing how quickly COVID-19 – possibly because of the Omicron variant – has spread. Dr Ngozi Ezike, the state’s top health official, said earlier this week that Illinois is experiencing the largest increase in coronavirus cases it has seen throughout the pandemic.

“The elderly, adults, young people as well as babies – countless people that I have the privilege of leading have contracted COVID,” he said. ‘is the fact that these are not just people who are not vaccinated – they are also people who are fully vaccinated. ”

The surge comes as the African American community prepares to honor Watch Night, or Freedom’s Eve, during New Year’s religious services. The tradition dates back to December 31, 1862, when slave and free African Americans awaited the New Year. for President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to come into effect, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Today, people still observe Watch Night and see it as a symbol of the promise of a New Year, said Frazlier Pope III, executive pastor of the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church.

“We look forward to this promise of a New Year where new things can happen,” Pope said. “Hope is on the other side of the midnight horizon.”

Fellowship Church will be making its three New Years Eve services virtual again due to the rise in COVID-19 cases, Pope said. He pointed out that people don’t have to be in a certain space to watch Watch Night.

The Bronzeville Apostolic Faith Church also decided to go virtual its Watch Night service on Tuesday, senior pastor Dr. Horace Smith said.

Over 90% of its members have been vaccinated, as Smith made vaccination his mantra. But the popularity of the Watch Night service could have created an increased risk of transmission because it typically prompts people who do not attend church regularly to reflect on the year with personal testimonies, he said.

“If it was mostly our people, I probably wouldn’t have canceled it, but I think people are worried about it,” Smith said. “They see the numbers so I think it’s the safe thing to do.”

Pastor Horace Smith of the Church of the Apostolic Faith is pictured on November 24, 2017, in the sanctuary of the church which seats 3,000 people.
Leslie Adkins / For the Sun-Times

Apostolic Faith Church will film portions of the service in advance and stream the rest in real time on social media, Smith said.

The church will return to in-person services after New Years Eve, but it will likely include additional guidance for those attending in person, Smith said. The church had previously asked everyone present to disclose their immunization status, but that will add additional questions about their health, he said.

Beyond New Years Eve, Pope said the Fellowship congregation is unlikely to return to in-person services until they get advice from the city that the spread of the virus has subsided.

“What we want people to do during this time is go get the vaccine; we want them to get their booster shots; we want them to wear their masks, ”Pope said. “We want them to do their best to protect their family and friends.”

Harris, of Bright Star Church, said they plan to open a COVID-19 testing site next week at the back of Bronzeville church that he would eventually like to include vaccinations as well.

Apostolic Faith Church, through a partnership with Walgreens, offers COVID-19 vaccines every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Smith said anyone in the public can walk into the church this Sunday to get any dose of the vaccine.

Smith, who is also a doctor at Lurie Children’s Hospital, said he was particularly concerned about the low vaccination rate among children as pediatric hospitalizations have increased in recent weeks.

“This is a population that, again, we have to target because they don’t get that sick, but they can transmit the virus,” Smith said. “It’s those kinds of nuances that are probably going to make us change and modify what we do on Sunday morning.”

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.

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