COVID church 2021-03-21 015_web
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Pastors say the pandemic can’t dim spiritual life; it can only change the presentation


When the pandemic hit in March 2020, it shuttered churches.

Yet pastors and parishioners have found creative ways to keep religious communities meeting the spiritual needs of Homewood and Flossmoor residents. Services restricted to limited capacity, services outside, and Sunday worship, Bible study and youth groups meeting via the internet are commonplace now.

John Huntoon, left, greets a member of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist before a recent early Sunday service. Huntoon said the congregation was glad to be meeting again in person after about a year of remote-only services.  (Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)

Churches now closed or on a limited schedule will open again in 2021, but pastors accept that a service presented through social media will continue to be part of their routine.

“We are committed to making something available to people in their homes,” said Pastor Julie VanTil of Flossmoor Community Church where services are offered via Zoom. The church remains closed. She said parishioners like that Zoom allows them “interaction with people that you feel are your family; that you love and miss and don’t know when you’ll be able to see again.”

Zoom has helped her match names with faces of her new congregants, and she’s found it easier to get to know them, even though she hasn’t been able to meet them in person.

VanTil was named pastor following the retirement of Fred Lyon in spring 2020. He didn’t get a send-off and church members were hoping by now that they would be able to invite Lyon back for a delayed celebration, but it hasn’t happened.

Pastor Bob Klonowski of Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church in Homewood, said he’s had great volunteers who learned how to get services online. Klonowski jokes that, “there’s nothing professional about it, but it is providing the word of God” while the church remains closed.

Church member Stuart Kurtz, a professor by day who has become adept at video, says, “You have to deal with constraints, but you don’t have to surrender to them.”

Klonowski said he’s found YouTube attendance is catching those who are not in Homewood. “They’re tuning in every week. It is ironic,” the pastor said.

The church’s Easter service will be outside. Parish members are designing “stations” to depict the Easter story.

Rev. Jeremy Froyen of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in Flossmoor said from Zoom services “we’ve gotten several new members just during COVID and the other thing I found really interesting — a number of our homebound parishioners have been able to connect with the church in ways that they haven’t been able to in years, so there’s some good things coming out of all of this.”

Froyen said one family not from his church asked if he’d conduct a funeral for a family member.

COVID church 2021-03-21 015_web
A video monitor shows the altar at St. John the Evangelist church in Flossmoor.  Since the pandemic started, the church has used social media for outreach.
(Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)

“It was very awkward,” Froyen said, “but at the same time it created this opportunity for people who even in a non-Zoom time … would never have been here for a funeral” and yet social media allowed this family to share the moment with people from around the world.

Froyen admits there are some who are “horrified” by online church, but, he says, “I think as much as we resist change or being forced into change and adapting, it in some ways opened up opportunities for us that never really existed before.

“Live-streaming our service is just part of who we are now. When we get back to normal, whatever that is, there are too many people that we’re connecting with that we’ve got to figure out how to make it part of who we are now,” he said.

Klonowski is bringing his congregation together from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Sundays for communion distribution from the church’s parking lot. He admits it’s not ideal, but the church members have been coming every Sunday since spring 2020, even when the weather is cold and snowy.

One Sunday, when the temperature dipped below zero, Klonowski had 25 people for communion. He was stunned, but a church member told him: “You don’t know how important it is, Bob, that it’s available and that it’s here. Even for people who don’t come – just to know that it’s still happening is so important. It’s one of the things that says God is still with us.”

Pastor VanTil is conducting communion services once a month via Zoom believing that “what God blesses is blessed in whatever space it is,” so she has the sacramental elements but invites church members to use what they have at home to bless as communion.

Catholic churches Infant Jesus of Prague in Flossmoor and St. Joseph Church in Homewood reopened in late June to a limited number of parishioners with cleaning and contact tracing protocols in place for each service.

At St. Joseph, Rev. Robert Kyfes said the Sunday mass schedule was reduced from four to two. Some parts of special services are being eliminated, including the traditional washing of the feet on Holy Thursday. Church-goers won’t be holding candles as part of the Saturday Easter Vigil mass because blowing them out could spread droplets.

Reconciliation, the act of confession, is a group service rather than an individual act to eliminate the cleaning protocols after each confession, he said.

Faith Lutheran Church Pastor Bob Klonowski distributes communion to members, from left, Erik Norwick, his son Johnny, wife Stacey and her father, Ken Anglin. (Marilyn Thomas/H-F Chronicle)

Marge and Jack Hayes of Homewood said they feel comfortable attending St. Joseph.

“I feel very safe, much safer there than at the grocery store. You see the same people all the time (at church). They’re really good about wearing masks and are good about using hand sanitizer,” Jack said. Churchgoers use every other pew.

Church is different now, without the choir and limited music. Marge says it’s “quiet” compared to what church was. When necessary, they watched Cardinal Blasé Cupich say mass on Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m. on ABC7-TV, but for Jack it’s not the same as being in church. “It’s much nicer to be back in person.”

Froyen said there is “anxiety in the church world that people will be so used to the computer that they won’t come back. I really don’t think that’s going to be the case though, because I honestly think that when we’re able to gather in groups again I think people are looking for community in ways that we haven’t in a long time, and I think this could be a great way for churches to become relevant again.

“When this is all over, churches are either going to thrive or die. I think it’s one of those tipping moments,” Froyen said. Churches able at finding ways to connect with people and being where people need spiritual guidance will survive.

“They don’t necessarily need us to be the way we’ve always thought we had to be, and that’s kind of exciting that we don’t have to do things the ways we’ve always done them,” the pastor said.

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