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A Chicago church clings to hope amid the coronavirus on an isolated Easter Sunday

No fellowship, no bright outfits and questions about survival at Shiloh Baptist

“Good morning, to God be the glory. Welcome to the prayer line.”

Propped up in her bed at home, phone in hand, Linda Wilson Isom spoke the Shiloh Baptist Church daily prayer meeting into existence. It was April 9, Day 20 of the coronavirus lockdown in Chicago. Three Sundays had passed since the church family last gathered in their South Side sanctuary. With Easter approaching, Shiloh’s spirit was in need of lifting, and a voice-only conference call would have to suffice.

In black churches across America, Resurrection Sunday is normally an occasion for the biggest crowds, the brightest outfits and to remember Jesus rising from the grave. This year, the faithful will celebrate everlasting life amid a plague of disproportionate black death. That’s hard enough to do through a phone app or computer screen. For Shiloh, and similar small churches at the root of black Christianity, this Easter represents an unprecedented challenge to their earthly existence.

Shiloh Baptist Church is a simple brown brick building at the corner of 71st Street and Racine Avenue in Englewood, one of Chicago’s historic black neighborhoods that has emptied out in a Great Emigration of people seeking jobs, safety and warmer winters. Red carpets line Shiloh’s sanctuary. The conference room features linoleum, folding tables and fluorescent lights. Congregants once filled the balcony and spilled over more than a dozen rows of wooden pews. But in recent times, a normal Sunday drew a sparse-looking crowd of 100 people, maybe 150. Shiloh has a Facebook page, but no website. The sermons of Rev. Ervin R. Millsaps are not livestreamed. So when Chicago joined the state of Illinois’ shutdown on March 21, Shiloh set up the conference call to host prayer sessions, Sunday school and Bible study.

“No matter how bleak it looks, Father God, we know that you are a healer,” Isom prayed. Disembodied voices added thank yous and amens. One of those voices belonged to Winifred French, a deacon and Shiloh member since 1958, who was trying to cope with the distance between her and her church family.

“It feels very different, because this is a time of great need for fellowshipping and communing at the church,” said French, 82. “We are definitely a senior church, a lot of our own children have gone to other churches or moved away. So we are like the remnant of years gone past.”

“You can have Bible study as a Zoom and all of that, but it’s hard to process communally that way.” — Rev. Stephen G. Ray Jr., president of Chicago Theological Seminary

French’s heart felt pierced April 5, on Palm Sunday, which celebrates the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem as the crowds laid palm fronds at Jesus’ feet. Shiloh was unable to distribute the traditional leaves to the congregation, which made French think about Good Friday, the day of crucifixion, when the church won’t be able to recite Jesus’ “seven last words” together.

“We will have to do it virtually or look at it on TV. How is this touching people, how can they express it, what are they feeling?” she said. “I’m hurt, and I hope this never happens again. There are so many other people who need to say this somewhere to somebody. We try to do it on the prayer line, but it’s hard.

“Easter is the commercial side with eggs and chocolate and new clothes,” French said. “The resurrection comes through Jesus Christ. This is a great time for renewing your faith, renewing your belief that Jesus did die for our sins on Friday and rose on Sunday morning. As things are in 2020, what does resurrection mean to you?”

The sanctuary at Shiloh Baptist Church in Chicago during a service earlier this year.

Courtesy of Leroy Bracy

No one from Shiloh has said they tested positive for the coronavirus. When a Shiloh member died recently of other causes, the homegoing service had to be held at the funeral home. Pastor Millsaps could not attend. French, a retired teacher with a doctorate in education from the University of Illinois, helped facilitate. The deceased had a large family, but only 10 people were allowed inside.

“It looked very strange to conduct a funeral service with a face mask on, but we did the best we could,” French said. “The person whose mother died, we couldn’t comfort her, put our arms around her. You don’t want to fist-bump and do elbows at a funeral. We as a people in the black community are so used to hugging and embracing and kissing and sobbing with the families. We had to keep our distance. That made the pain worse.”

Rev. Stephen G. Ray Jr., president of Chicago Theological Seminary, said the black church has always been a place where our people process their collective trauma. The moment when the song is supposed to end but the congregation won’t let it stop — “that’s a therapeutic thing going on. I don’t know if we can replicate that digitally,” Ray said.

In Chicago, roughly 70% of coronavirus fatalities have been black, according to the most recent counts, even though black people are only 29% of the population. Cook County Jail is reportedly the nation’s “largest-known source of coronavirus infections.”

“Even though this is a season of joy and resurrection, certainly Good Friday will be much more powerfully felt than in a long time,” Ray said. “Part of what is unfortunate is we won’t have as many ways to process the things people are carrying. You can have Bible study as a Zoom and all of that, but it’s hard to process communally that way.”

Another concern, Ray said, is that most black Christians belong to churches with fewer than 200 members. Some are “Sunday to Sunday” churches that depend on weekly offerings to pay their bills. The nationwide shutdown has not only kept people out of church, but job losses have cut into their tithes.

“Many of these churches, even if the people themselves are not asking the question out loud, they ask inside, will our church survive,” Ray said.

Shiloh does not have an online payment system.

“Our trustees informed us we need to drop off our tithes at the church or put them in the mail, so we can still continue financially. That’s what I’ve been doing,” said Sandra Kendrick, the church Sunday school superintendent, pianist and a minister of the gospel.

“I miss the fellowship,” said Kendrick, who’s been a member since the pews were full. “I know we can still celebrate, I’m trying to think of a way we can do it over the phone. I’m sure I’ll think of something to remind people about Easter, we have to keep in mind the resurrection and what Easter means to us as Christians. That’s all we can do at this point. We don’t want to come together and make anybody sick. We don’t know who has it.”

Edgar Anderson, chairman of the deacon board, is trying to stave off depression by serving his church family. “I try to be cheerful when I talk with members and other deacons. I call to check on our shut-ins, and they’re glad to hear from us. I’ve been calling Pastor Millsaps and praying that he’s going to be OK.” Phone messages left by The Undefeated for Millsaps, 58, were not returned.

Rev. Ervin R. Millsaps teaching Sunday School at Shiloh Baptist Church in Chicago earlier this year.

Courtesy of Leroy Bracy

“We’re used to touching and hugging, holding hands while we pray. Someone gives a testimony and we lay hands on them,” said Anderson, 81, who still works full time as a scheduler at a seating factory, although he has been using vacation time to stay home during the pandemic. “This separation is hard, especially for our seniors. They’re used to dealing with things a certain way.”

On the prayer line, after about a dozen people beeped in, the virus seemed to creep closer. Someone’s son had symptoms and was quarantined within his home, trying to stay away from his grandson and great-granddaughter. A woman had two sisters with the virus. The nephew of someone’s aunt’s husband died in Cook County Jail.

“Has anybody talked to Deacon Nichols? His phone just rings,” a voice asked. “Deacon Anderson calls frequently, he has not been able to get through, either.”

Another voice said: “Lord, I pray for you to wrap your loving arms around all of us. Be with us as we go through this crisis. … Father in heaven, we just want to be with all our church family. Also, to be with our pastor, because he is under the weather.”

On the morning of Good Friday, Shiloh’s plans were still in progress. Options included some kind of conference call, watch the livestream of another church or maybe muster up their own Facebook Live. Kendrick had been able to broadcast a Sunday school lesson on her personal Facebook page, so there could be some sort of Shiloh stream by Easter Sunday.

“I thought we might be able to do something, but I haven’t been able to reach out to our pastor,” Kendrick said. “I understand he’s under the weather. I don’t know what that means.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.