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Churches face another test with omicron

Posted: January 21 2022 at 08:46 PM
Author: Anne Marie Gerhardt, Dir. of Communications


Members of Urban Village Church gathered outside on a cold January Sunday to be in community service together since the rise in omicron cases cancelled in-person worship

The high-speed surge of the omicron coronavirus variant over the last few months presented another pandemic challenge to United Methodist churches, prompting some to put the pause on in-person gatherings, with others making more modest changes.

Urban Village Church (UVC) cancelled all in-person, indoor gatherings during January at its six locations in Chicago and River Forest because of the rise in COVID cases and moved to online streaming on Facebook and YouTube.

But the Rev. Christian Coon, who leads the ministry partnership of UVC-West and River Forest UMC, found a creative way to still be together and be the church. 

"Just because we're not worshiping in the sanctuary doesn't mean we can't be creative and still gather...even outside in January!" said Rev. Coon. 

On Jan. 16, church members met at the Hampton House in Maywood, Ill., the childhood home of political activist Fred Hampton Jr., to partner with the non-profit organization Suburban Unity Alliance (SUA) and fill their community fridge. 

"This was a great way for us to build our connection with SUA, which works to raise discrimination awareness, and to honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Hampton," said Coon. "As part of UVC's commitment to anti-racism, each of our sites is encouraged to connect with an organization that is led by and primarily services communities of color. The community fridge is for anyone experiencing food insecurity, and they can take what they need."

The congregation stocked the fridge and more. Rev. Coon said they had too much food, so the extra donations went to the SUA's other community fridges housed at Euclid UMC in Oak Park.

Though early studies showed omicron to be milder than other variants, it's highly transmissible, leading to an alarming rise in cases and hospitalizations in much of the U.S., as well as disruptions in some school systems and workplaces.


Church members stocked the community fridge organized by the Suburban Unity Alliance with food that's free to anyone in need.

At the beginning of January, NIC Interim Bishop John L. Hopkins and the cabinet issued a letter thanking churches for continuing to exercise caution and care for the health and wellbeing of their congregations and the community. 

"While the new variant, omicron, has not been as severe as last summer's delta variant, especially for those who are vaccinated, the State of Illinois is struggling with increased numbers of infections and our hospitals are once again strained to the limit," said Bishop Hopkins. "Follow state and local health department guidelines and work with your church health team to make decisions that are best for your context.”

Pastor Rolland Hayag, who serves Shirland UMC and Pecatonica UMC, moved services online after COVID-19 cases started rising in his communities impacting not only his congregations but him personally.

“My whole family tested positive and more and more members also were feeling sick and quarantining,” said Hayag. “That’s what prompted us to do an online worship to avoid infecting more members, especially those who are not vaccinated.” 

Hayag said they’re continuing with health and safety protocols such as sanitizing the church building. And while not in person, Hayag continues to make sure members know they’re not alone.

“We have been communicating and making calls to care and pray for members,” said Hayag. “We hope to be back to in-person worship soon.”

Some United Methodist seminaries and United Methodist-related colleges also adapted policies since omicron emerged.

Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary employees worked remotely for several weeks and returned to the office on Jan. 24. The spring semester started Jan. 31 and in-person classes are still meeting on campus. 

"We will continue to monitor the situation and use the CDC, local and state government, and Northwestern University as guides for our decision making," said Garrett Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Shane Nichols. "Before the fall 2021 semester, all faculty, staff, and students were required to be vaccinated. Now the seminary is requiring all faculty, staff, and students to get the booster by Mar. 1, 2022."

Covid For Index

Shirland UMC moved to virtual worship after the number of omicron cases rose in the community.

Other churches across the Northern Illinois Conference reinstated temperature checks, pew dividers for social distancing, and some required reservations for Christmas Eve services asking for vaccination status. 

Central UMC in Skokie bases worship decisions on positivity rates in the community. 

“We suspend in-person worship when the COVID-19 positivity rate hits eight percent. So that's also our threshold for returning to in-person worship," said Rev. Tim Biel. "We made the call to stick with Zoom-only worship through January, and then to take it one week at a time in February.”

As the omicron variant lingers, many United Methodist churches are part of the public health response.

Several Northern Illinois UMC churches have partnered with the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan of Chicago’s (CRLMC) grant program to deliver vaccinations to 1,000 people this winter. CRLMC is part of the Chicago Vaccine Partnership which is mobilizing community members to ensure equitable vaccine access.

"Our research and our discussions with faith leaders during the pandemic confirm that people are much more likely to listen to people they know and trust within their own congregations," said CRLMC President Barbara Abrajano. "They also are more comfortable with vaccination appointments that they can attend in a familiar place." 

Englewood-Rust UMC held a clinic on Dec. 19 and will hold a second one on March 20. Others who are participating include Olivet UMC and South Shore UMC. Good Samaritan UMC in Addison has also held four vaccination clinics in partnership with the Illinois Department of Public Health and is planning more.

"For all the downsides of the pandemic (and there have been many), it's also moved us to think creatively about how we can worship and how we can serve our communities," said Rev. Coon. "Our effort to gather and fill the community fridges (and others we've tried to do) is just another reminder, as the old hymn says, that the church is not a steeple, the church is the people. And I mean that broadly: our neighbors and non-church folks, too!"

As news that the omicron surge is slowing and possibly peaking, Bishop Hopkins encourages churches to remain vigilant as we move forward and keep all those impacted by the virus in our prayers. 

"We pray for those who have lost loved ones to COVID and those who work on the front lines providing us with care and essential services in this challenging time," said Hopkins.

*Sam Hodges with UMNS contributed to this report.

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