On May 2nd, 2020, six Romanian evangelical churches in the Chicago area informed the public and their governor of their decision to begin holding services with about 100 congregants per service (the current state-mandated limit is 10). Six pastors stated in an open letter that they would defy the shelter-in-place orders handed down by state and local authorities starting on May 10th. In the letter, the pastors also informed their governor that they would be suing the government for discrimination (this lawsuit was recently thrown out by a judge, though the decision is being appealed).
Eugen M. Bold, a Romanian-American and former Chicagoan (currently residing in Florida) has recently posted a letter sharing his thoughts on the situation. I reached out to interview Eugen on why he posted this letter, the response he has received, and his hope for a resolution to the situation (see “About Eugen” below). My questions are in bold.
For those who haven’t read your post or who don’t read Romanian, can you summarize your post regarding Romanian evangelical churches in Chicago and their decision to reopen during shelter-in-place orders?
Eugen: On May 1, 2020, Illinois reported 3,137 new COVID-19 cases, the state’s highest daily number of infections up until then. Cook County (encompassing Chicago) had climbed to the third spot in the unenviable top of counties with the largest number of COVID-19 cases in the entire United States. As I am writing, Cook County has surpassed Queens, NY with the most COVID-19 cases in the entire country. Within this context, a number of Romanian evangelical churches from Chicago chose to publicly defy the limitations designed to mitigate the spread of the virus and initiate a legal and mediatic war against the local health department, the City of Chicago, and Illinois Governor Pritzker. The pastors took legal action against the state for alleged discrimination and, before even a verdict could be issued by the Court, decided to assemble in numbers far greater than 10, the limit mandated by the local health officials and recommended by the CDC.
Was there something specific that led to your decision to write and publish the post?
Eugen: First, my firm belief that Christians are called to model love, service, and kindness particularly now, during the worst health crisis in modern history. In Matthew 22, the words of Christ are unambiguous regarding our purpose on earth: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself”. Christians ought to be supremely interested in – and known by – their collective love and concern for others, not by their stubborn, menacing defiance of the necessary health precautions advised by local governments and healthcare experts during a global pandemic. The public perception could be that Chicago’s Romanian churches are willing to risk infecting people and potentially killing them, for their right to meet in person, in large numbers – now.
Secondly, I lived in Chicago for almost a decade and was part of the Romanian evangelical community there. This action, to a degree, represents us all in the Romanian-American Christian community in the US. And as a member of the community, I felt compelled to present my point of view.
Third, my upbringing in a Romanian church, my education at Chicago’s Trinity International University, and my background in medical Higher Education and Public Administration (currently) shaped and continues to inform my perspective and response to COVID-19.
Lastly, my professional background also allowed me to witness and understand the incredibly difficult job done by ER physicians and public administrators during these difficult times – working tirelessly to help save lives and mitigate the spread of the virus.
Have you received any feedback (positive or negative) from family, friends, or those in the faith community due to your post?
Eugen: Those who view the church as an oppressed institution or entity whose primary mission is to fight fiercely and perpetually for its rights and status in society are responding negatively. Those who understand the church to be, primarily, a group of people whose mission is to simply reflect the love of Christ to a world in despair responded positively.
Arguments for reopening churches with strict regulations in place include the need for fellowship, separation of church and state, no seeming end to the lockdown, and arbitrary government decisions that discriminate against places of worship. Is there any argument that you agree with or have some sympathy or understanding toward?
Eugen: I empathize with most arguments above. Let’s examine them separately, however.
Fellowship – is an important facet of the Christian life. We are built to desire human connection and to worship communally. There is, however, a definition (in Matthew) worth considering when defining fellowship in and with Christ: “where two or three gather in My name, there am I with them”. While not intrinsically bad, a building, the institutionalized worship, and a large crowd of believers are not pre-requisites for authentic fellowship with Christ.
The separation of Church and State -in this particular circumstance and at this time, the government is not preventing Christians from exercising and expressing their faith, from worshiping, from praying to God, and from congregating (in small numbers up to 10). The counter-argument, in this case, seems centered on the discriminatory nature of the executive order as it appears that the state government created one set of rules for churches and another for everyone else. This would appear to be factually inaccurate and a false equivalence, as none of the secular entities mentioned in the “Open Letter” (liquor stores, etc.) seem to accommodate events for hundreds of people at once, for an extended period of time. U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman, the presiding magistrate reviewing the case similarly opined that churches are more comparable to schools, movie theaters or concert halls, where people are also not gathering – and not hardware stores and bars.
No Seeming Ending of the Lockdown – I am uncertain as to what the local health authorities will decide, but I suspect the decision will be driven by the number of infections and the ability to reopen in a safe manner.
Arbitrary Government Decisions that Discriminate Against Places of Worship – The formulation of the question implies bias. I’m not claiming there isn’t any in this situation, however, it does not seem overt. Given that the temporary regulations apply uniformly, to any venue capable of holding events with crowds, I am doubting that the regulations are discriminatory of places of worship.
The most important point here is that we are the Church of Christ and we’re in the “business” of the Divine, of touching hearts and minds by spreading love and alleviating pain in a broken world full of pain and need. Is this what Christians should prioritize during the worst pandemic in modern history? Even if the churches win the legal fight to meet physically in larger numbers, aren’t we losing the hearts and minds of the people we should be striving to capture? Have we become so callous as to ignore the plight and pain of those around us while furiously shaking our fists in the air and demanding our rights?
Pastor Cristian Ionescu, arguably the face of the movement for the Romanian evangelical community in the Chicago area, has argued that not only is his church taking precautions during reopening, but that they are taking more precautions than is even legally required. How do you respond to this?
Eugen: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), our nation’s foremost authority on infectious diseases and pandemics advises faith leaders located in areas with substantial community spread to 1) Follow the directions of the state and local authorities and 2) Cancel in-person community and faith-based group events or gatherings of any size.* It would appear that the directives are pretty clear. What assurance do we have that the protocol implemented by the churches will completely eliminate the risk of community infection given that not even masks are mandated by it?! In the event that community infections occur, will the pastors be held legally and financially liable for any hospitalization or deaths caused by their decisions?!
There is a broader point I would like to make. I am fully aware that these are difficult times for our pastors, churches, and society. There’s economic anxiety, fear, pain, uncertainty, disinformation, and anger. Within this difficult context, should Romanian evangelicals – who decades ago arrived at US airports fleeing actual persecution – adopt a pugilistic, militaristic type of Christianity and be known for their angry unwillingness to temporarily sacrifice for their neighbor? For their unwillingness to follow expert consensus and temporarily limit in-person meetings as most other congregations do? For resisting the authority of the local government, the local health department, and the CDC rules designed to prevent more illness and death in their community?! Should the exercise of our right to congregate physically come at the expense of people’s lives? Is this what Christians should be known for?
Some in the Christian community have argued that the church will not survive for prolonged periods of time with only online services, and that fellowship and a sense of community is a necessity to the survival of the church. What do you think about this argument?
Eugen: If this were to be the case, the Body of Christ would have never survived the early Roman persecution or, in our case, Romania’s Communist persecution. Soon after the Communists took over Romania, over 80,000 people were arrested and imprisoned, including clergy and citizens who asserted and exercised their religious beliefs. Many died in Communist prisons for simply following Christ. In light of that, the temporary restrictions applied by a democratically elected government, in the middle of a severe global pandemic, in a region that is plagued by the highest number of infections in the country, does not equate persecution. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t even resemble the most basic understanding of persecution, by the definition we painfully came to know in Romania. On the opposite, references to Romania’s persecution end up weakening the argument as they equate the historical and barbaric religious oppression caused by an evil regime with the temporary inconveniences caused by a health crisis of global proportions.
How do you feel about the argument that the closing of churches by the government is in direct violation of the separation of church and state, and that people should have the ability to make the decision to go to church or stay home (regardless of any threat to their physical safety or health)?
Eugen: The state did not outlaw Christianity or infringe upon our right to express our faith and worship God. It did not infringe on our right to express our love for Christ. It does not infringe on our right to physically open our churches and conduct services – in a limited fashion. In my opinion, this particular action does not constitute a violation of the separation between church and state and of the rights enshrined in our Constitution. If it did, Christians would be within their rights to stand up for their constitutionally protected rights.
I don’t want to be misunderstood – I am not arguing against the need to protect the free exercise of religion as a fundamental right enshrined in our constitution. Most of us believe strongly in it. There are many other legitimate situations where the undertones of persecution and heavy-handedness are present in the actions and behaviors of governments. If, for example, the government were to open all other venues and, discriminatorily, keep Christian churches closed – then a valid argument could be made that the state is discriminating and that our religious rights are being infringed upon. A legal challenge would be justifiable and advisable.
You mentioned in your letter that you would like to know if pastors or churches think that they should be held liable if their parishioners develop COVID-19. Do you personally believe that the government should hold these churches accountable if their parishioners develop COVID-19 and/or die?
Eugen: I believe their own conscience should. Their love for their congregation should. Their allegiance to a Divine morality that places the love of people at the epicenter of their faith. The very fact that we’ve reached a point where we have to even ponder the liability and the potential human losses as a result of a pastor’s decision to defy health experts shows how far we have strayed from the course charted by the Scriptures.
In your opinion, what is the best way for churches to respond to the ongoing lockdown?
Eugen: With love, mercy, and service. The prime example is in Christ: He loved, healed, served, sacrificed. This tragic health crisis demands a loving, health-centered response that requires all of us, Christians, to do our part, be responsible, wise, and caring towards others. More so, as Christians, it requires great love, service, and sacrifice towards our neighbors. At times, Christians can become culturally obtuse and retreat in their cultural and, in this case, ethnic bubbles, unaware of how insensitive, irresponsible and heartless their actions can be perceived by the very people we are witnessing to.
How do you think that churches who decide to stay closed (and abide by the orders) should respond when pressured to reopen since other churches are?
Eugen: Faith leaders should follow the local health officials’ recommendations, as long as facts and statistics provide evidentiary support for them. More importantly, faith leaders should lead in their communities through love and a supreme sense of concern for others – congregants and community at large by identifying every opportunity to serve others in their greatest hour of need.
The seeming standoff between the government and Romanian evangelical churches in the Chicago area does not seem to be reaching a conclusion at this point in time. What is your hope for how this situation will end or resolve?
Eugen: My hope is that we, as a community of faith, reclaim the love, compassion, and mercy expected and commanded of us by Christ. The moral primacy of Jesus’ command to love thy neighbor should guide the Romanian (and any other) Christian community and its decisions. It’s what God and society will judge us by.
[End of interview.]
About Eugen M. Bold: Born and raised in Romania by Baptist parents, Eugen studied philosophy in Romania at Babes-Bolyai University/Cluj. Eugen received a degree at Trinity International University/Illinois and also completed an Internship at the US Senate. Eugen has completed his MBA and has worked in Higher Ed administration for 13 years. He is currently working in public administration at the County level.