Radical increases in natural-gas prices and bone-chilling temperatures are causing strains on churches large and small, and in many parts of the country.

Chicago's Uptown Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation, is struggling to pay its heating bills, which have more than doubled, said Brian Bakke, director of community outreach.

"It's raised the anxiety level of a lot of people," Bakke said. "Not only have gas prices gone through the ceiling, the ceilings have been coming down on a lot of churches with the massive snowfall this winter."

The Graffiti Center, so named because the small Baptist congregation has so much gang graffiti painted on it, also is struggling to pay higher heating bills, said Courtney Johnson, a Southern Baptist missionary in Manhattan. But the center continues its programs.

The energy crunch is felt even by church organizations that prepare for such upswings in heating bills. For example, the sprawling Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago buys energy in advance to lower costs, and it just completed a two-year, $20 million program to make church buildings more energy efficient.

"Our parishes are taking quite a hit," said Jesse Estrada, the archdiocese's liaison to 57 mostly minority Catholic congregations on Chicago's west side.

One medium-sized church paid $468 on a prepayment plan, but the gas bill came in at $700, Estrada said. A larger church with a school budgeted $3,800, but the total was $6,400. The higher amounts will have to be paid later.

Peoples Energy, the major gas company in Chicago, has come under severe criticism. The utility is asking faith communities to help notify people that help is available for needy families.

Heavy snows this winter have damaged floors and walls on all three levels ...

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