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Most Forest Park churches met for worship last Sunday — while taking precautions. In contrast to announcement after announcement last Friday of the closing of public gathering places like District 91 schools, the library, the community center and the park district’s Roos Center, most Forest Park churches went online to tell their members that they would be open for worship.

After posting that they would be holding services, however, all of the web pages hastened to add that it would not be business as usual on March 15.

Living Word Christian Center, for example, held services at their facility on Roosevelt Road but addressed the threat of COVID-19 infections by limiting attendance at each of four services to 500 — about half of the capacity of their sanctuary — a move designed to increase “social distancing.”

An online statement dated March 14 read, “As people of faith, we must remain vigilant not to give in to fear and panic while also taking the necessary precautions to keep ourselves and our families safe. After consulting with other pastors, health experts and government officials, below are the actions and guidelines that are being taken to stop the spread of the virus.”

Those actions included: “LWCC premises will be rigorously cleaned and disinfected before and after every service following the procedures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control” along with standard CDC guidelines like encouraging frequent handwashing and not touching your face.

Rev. Leonard Payton, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church, read before worship on March 15 a three-page statement titled, “Pastoral Directions Concerning the COVID-19 Epidemic and Worship” in which he, like the Living Word post, tried to balance precaution with faith in God’s care.

He mentioned the standard guidelines of frequent handwashing and social distancing and spent several minutes explaining the measures St. John had taken regarding the receiving of Holy Communion.

Payton tried to frame the health crisis in terms of religious faith: “This new COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity for us to let the world see what our lives as new creatures in Christ look like in a loving community. Call one another in the days to come.”

Forest Park Baptist Church, St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church, and Hope Tabernacle are all smaller congregations where social distancing is not a problem and therefore do not have to limit how many people come to worship.

All of these smaller churches are utilizing the same CDC recommendation which the larger churches are following.

The one exception is St. Bernardine Catholic which is following Cardinal Cupich’s directive that all churches in the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago suspend scheduled Masses until further notice.

Cardinal Cupich sounded a bit like Pastor Winston even though the two leaders came down in different places. He said, “This was not a decision I made lightly … but in consultation with leaders from across the archdiocese, for the sake of the safety of our students, parishioners, and all the women and men who serve the people of the archdiocese, it is clear that we must take the better part of caution in order to slow the spread of this pandemic.”

Jim Murray of Forest Park followed suit by postponing the Kingdom Retreat scheduled to take place at St. Bernardine on March 28. Murray commented on the cardinal’s authority to suspend worship in 344 congregations with one stroke of the pen: “I guess the advantage of having the man at the top make the decisions is that it takes the pressure off [local leaders],” he said, adding, “and it is a good thing as long as the man is wise and prudent.”

Lin Beribak, a longtime St. Bernardine member, said, “I must admit that although I understand the need to follow social isolation, I am disappointed that all Masses are cancelled. It is an especially important time to me during Lent as we prepare for Easter, which is, of course, the basis of our faith, memorialized in every Mass.

I don’t know what I will do to fill the void. In addition to the rite, I feel that gathering at Mass is a calling of the Holy Spirit as well as socially enriching.”