The Power of Small Churches
A Small Congregation Confronts COVID
Santa Teresa de Avila, where I serve as vicar, had a pre-pandemic average Sunday attendance of about 55 people, somewhat smaller than other Latino congregations in the city and Diocese of Chicago. Because we were a small congregation, some adaptations during the pandemic were easier for us, while others, made by larger congregations, were not feasible. Things that worked well include quickly returning to in-person worship, continuing online worship via Facebook Live and maintaining connection among our most active members. On the other hand, online giving, general finances and participation in online diocesan events proved difficult.
Lockdown and reopening at Santa Teresa
On March 15, a year ago, Santa Teresa held its last in-person Eucharist for three months. Later that week, Illinois’s governor issued a stay-at-home order and our diocesan bishop issued a directive closing church buildings for worship and other activities. When the stay-at-home order began, I downloaded software to broadcast bilingual morning prayer from my laptop at home via Facebook, but I couldn’t get it to work. While I had distributed copies of bilingual morning prayer and the Lent IV readings at our service on the 15th and posted them on our website, there was no live or recorded worship on March 22nd, the Fourth Sunday of Lent. It was a Refreshment Sunday in a new sense! With the help of tech-savvy friends, I was able to transmit via Facebook Live the following Sunday from my cell phone, which we have been doing ever since with the help of our youth and young adults.
In late May, as COVID-19 cases diminished, state and diocesan authorities allowed partial reopening with health precautions. Our diocese provided guidelines and considerations for reopening, and on Pentecost, I had a conference call with the six members of the bishop’s committee who work in building maintenance, a health clinic, construction and home improvement. They offered suggestions on how to apply the guidelines, and I submitted our reopening plan to the diocese.
On Trinity Sunday, I was able to broadcast Morning Prayer from the sanctuary, and the following Sunday we began outdoor eucharists in our small church yard, observing social distancing and capacity limits. Each week, volunteers moved the items needed for worship outdoors, and when we moved inside in October, they removed prayer books, taped off some pews and placed hand sanitizer and masks at the entrances. Our relatively small space made these tasks manageable. In the fall, when a member tested positive for the virus the day after attending Sunday worship, we were able to do contact tracing quickly because of our small numbers.
Some things are simpler in a small congregation
When a Chicago Tribune reporter interviewed me in June, I realized that it was largely because we are a small Latino congregation and we were one of the first churches in our diocese to resume in-person worship. It was easier to get six bishop’s committee members together on a phone call than to coordinate subcommittees and debate details with a large vestry. Unaccustomed to the emphasis on process and bylaws common in many Anglo Episcopal congregations, Latino immigrants often just want to accomplish the task at hand, and they did.
In addition to worship, education and outreach adaptations worked fairly well. While our building was closed, I delivered Bibles, reading and activity sheets, and Easter gift bags to parents for distribution to our first communion and confirmation classes. Every other week, I called students from my home to assess and guide their understanding. After partial reopening in June, I taught socially-distanced, masked confirmation and first solemn communion classes. Thanks to donations to my discretionary fund, I was also able to give grocery gift cards to families I knew were struggling.
When people know one another, it’s easier to stay connected
Perhaps the most important advantage for our small congregation has been the sense of connection. Not being able to physically meet or convivir – to gather, talk, celebrate, and enjoy being together – has been extremely difficult, especially in our Latino culture, where personal connection and the sense of family are significant values. However, it has been somewhat less isolating in our small congregation, because more people already know and communicate with each other.
Parishioners often called or messaged each other and me in the first months of the pandemic to ask how we were doing, and given the increase in anti-immigrant rhetoric in recent years, this connection and solidarity are even more important for immigrants and people of color. Latinos have had a higher risk of infection by COVID-19, and for much of last fall, our zip code had one of the highest positivity rates in the state. Many people continued to work at their factory, cleaning, construction and other manual labor jobs, essential industries that can’t be done remotely. Some weren’t eligible for government economic stimulus payments. Many had family members or neighbors who were hospitalized or who died of COVID-19. Given these social and financial challenges, expressions of care and concern from one’s faith community members are powerful.
Most adult members of our congregation grew up in the Roman Catholic Church with little contact with the priest. In describing what attracted them about the Episcopal Church, parishioners often mention personally knowing their priest, which is easier in small churches. I would prefer that people identify their relationship with Jesus Christ as the primary relationship that the congregation facilitates, rather than their relationship with me or each other. Nevertheless, these valued personal relationships demonstrate the power of small churches in people’s lives.
Some things haven’t worked, but grace abides
On the other hand, being a small Latino congregation during the pandemic has been difficult, and some adaptations used by other congregations have not worked as well in our context. For example, we had begun to offer online giving before the pandemic, but few people use this option. Many parishioners use cash almost exclusively; some have no bank account or credit card; others are not comfortable giving electronically.
Also, we applied for a Payroll Protection Program loan, but most of my one-third time vicar compensation goes to my medical insurance, which though eligible, was excluded in our lender’s calculations. We have a small budget and no members with significant knowledge in finance. With few family units, our income was limited even when everyone could attend in person.
We survive by the grace of God thanks to people’s contributions, diocesan support and frugality. Other efforts that have not succeeded for us include an intercessory prayer group that I began while our buildings were closed and participation in diocesan Hispanic Ministry sponsored events via Zoom, such as a posada, Lenten retreat and Via Crucis.
Amidst the many challenges of the pandemic, I thank God for using our small Latino congregation to continue our witness to Christ in ways that we could not have anticipated (Ephesians 3:20-21).
The Rev. Gary Cox is vicar of Santa Teresa de Avila Episcopal Church and pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Chicago. He also is an adjunct instructor in Adult Education with the College of Lake County and secretary of the board of Hopeful Beginnings of St. Mary’s Services, an adoption and maternity counseling agency of Episcopal Charities and Community Services. He obtained the Master of Divinity from the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin and previously worked as a bilingual teacher and music teacher in the Chicago area and as a cellist with the National Symphony of Ecuador.
- Stewardship During the Pandemic, by Annette Buchanan, an ECF Vital Practices blog, October 12, 2020
- Prayer and Action In a Pandemic, by Yesenia (Jessie) Alejandro, Vestry Papers, September 2020
- Virtual Morning Prayer Builds EDS at Union’s Community, by Mary Barber, Carl Adair, Joseph O’Rear, Nicole Hanley and Maryann Philbrook, an ECF Vital Practices blog, June 13, 2020
- Evangelism, Connection, and Our New (Virtual) Reality, by Alan Bentrup, an ECF Vital Practices blog, April 9, 2020