Jonathan Brooks, the senior pastor at Canaan Community Church in Chicago’s West Englewood neighborhood, says that he has pastor friends whose churches are still meeting, in spite of Illinois’ coronavirus meeting bans, “which totally bewilders me.”
“But it's because of the giving. It's because if they don't physically have church, they won't get any money and their budget is not so that they can miss a Sunday,” said Brooks. “And so it’s such a conundrum, it’s such a quandary. Some folks just stop having church completely because they don't have anybody around them that can help them navigate this new way of being.”
While Brooks’ church has been able to meet digitally, he recognizes that few in his congregation have the opportunity to move their work online.
“To be honest with you, this is a white-collar pandemic. It's not a blue-collar pandemic,” he said. “The folks who serve us all and make things run still have to go to work, which is the majority of my congregation.”
Brooks joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss how Canaan has navigated online giving, how he has injected creativity into his online Holy Week services, and what it’s like when your congregation says “Amen” over Zoom.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #207
Can you share your personal experiences, especially regarding how you pastor your community, since the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois put into effect their coronavirus measures?
Jonathan Brooks: Well, first and foremost, I just want to say that I think this definitely is an unprecedented time for not only the church but the world in general. And so as we try to creatively come up with ways to stay connected to one another, I think this is one time where regardless of geographic location, regardless of even why you gather, there's undue stress and the need to be intentional about how you gather.
For me, the response initially was being concerned about the health and wellbeing of my congregation and community. The move to stop meeting together and to close down all of the other activities at our church for the community was a no-brainer. To me, it's a connection to the great commandment of loving God and then loving your neighbor as yourself. Even if I'm not really afraid for myself, there were too many people who I was in relationship with, especially in a neighborhood like mine that has a higher number of folks with underlying conditions already, that it was a no-brainer that we needed to immediately go to more of an online presence.
What does the digital connection to your congregation and your community look like?
Jonathan Brooks: I have friends who pastor larger congregations and are able to record their worship service, show it live, bring in a few worship leaders, and then piece it together with different camera angles. But not only is that not possible for us fiscally and financially, but it's not even the way that we connect.
Our congregation is all about presence with one another. Every single Sunday, I say the same thing at the beginning of worship: I'm so glad that you're here. Because all the things that we do here, I can do at home. I can sing songs to the Lord, I can read scripture, I can pray, I can take communion. But the one thing that keeps me coming back to this geographic location, to this address, is the fact that you're going to meet me here. That we're going to be in this space, worshiping God together and that I get to engage with what God has done and who God has been for you.
Because I say that, I think it was a smoother transition for my congregation to recognize that it's not necessarily about the building, but it's about the connection of us together every week that makes it special. But digitally, it has been difficult because not only do some of our members not have any access to internet technology or not on any social media but even if they do have access, the signals are not strong enough to do certain things. So we decided to use Zoom for our actual Sunday gathering.
It was important for me to use Zoom for a few reasons. One, there are multiple ways to connect. If people could not connect using the internet, they could simply call in on their cell phones and at least hear voices and still connect. The other thing is the personal aspect of Zoom; everyone has the opportunity to engage. So not only do we have our service, but we spend about 15-20 minutes in the beginning and end letting people catch up. And that has been a blessing because a lot of folks are like, “This is my one time where I'm really getting the opportunity to engage.”
How has this changed some of the key areas of church life apart from Sunday morning?
Jonathan Brooks: There's a lot of church life that happens outside of the Sunday morning service, and for us, that's even more unique because most of the ministry we engage in is community ministry—so it’s not just for those who consider themselves congregants of our church.
We have a food cooperative, block club meetings, community-assisted policing strategies (CAPS) meetings, and resident association meetings that all happen at the church. Then there are small groups, we work with families of the incarcerated to packed boxes of food. All these things are now in flux. So what we decided was to create opportunities for people to connect virtually. We’ve just created open rooms in Zoom where people can connect affinity-wise. You can still have your gathering and meetings, plan and share resources, and do all the things you need to do.
I think the hardest part has been that our food cooperative, which really feeds quite a few people in the neighborhood and mostly focuses on healthy food, has had to rework itself. It took us about two weeks to figure out how we're going to be able to do that. People couldn’t be in there shopping since our church is not an official grocery store, so we flipped it into a distribution center. We give people specific times to come, we pack bags with some of the fresh vegetables and fruits that we grow, as well as nonperishable items, and then have them pick them up.
Have you been able to reach out to members that have really struggled to digitally adapt?
Jonathan Brooks: We have reached out to every member of the congregation—so that’s about 165 people—every day for the last two weeks. We have reached out through every route we can think of, whether that’s sending out snail mail letters to emails, to calls and social media, anything you can think of.
But on top of that, we're also partnered with Jahmal Cole’s My Block My Hood My City, which is doing daily wellness checks on over 1500 seniors, and we have 125 seniors from that list. And everyone who wanted to volunteer has been given five seniors to call, check in with, and connect back to resources if they need them.
Are you feeling like things are busier for you as a pastor or has the busyness just shifted with the sheltering in place?
Jonathan Brooks: I wouldn't say I feel busier. Actually, I feel like I've had quite a bit of downtime.
My very first sermon during this thing was a lesson in sitting in serving. I preached about Mary and Martha and that Jesus was forcing us to choose the better thing. There’s a pastor who I'm really fond of, her name is Rev. Dr. Renee Jackson, and she has a quote where she says, “Be careful not to lead out of memory, but to lead out of imagination.” And what I think this has forced us to do is be imaginative.
That’s the busyness. How can we be creative? How can we do something we've never done before? How can we reach out to people in ways we haven't? And to me, that's exciting. So I think the fun of it all, the creative juices that it brings up in me as a creator and an artist, is what's keeping me busy.
The African American preaching tradition tends to be one of the more dialogical preaching styles. Has your preaching style changed without the visible congregation to be in dialogue with?
Jonathan Brooks: So we project the Zoom meeting onto Facebook Live, so that people on Facebook can watch as well. And on Facebook, you don't have the opportunity to interact cause you can't speak to us through that platform. But as I was preaching the very first Sunday, people began responding in the comments with “Amen,” “Preach, preacher!” “That’s a word!” And it had the same effect. And then people started doing that on Zoom in the chat as well.
And so while I thought my preaching would just be calmer, I still got ramped up. And while I didn't have the organ behind me to help me tune up and sing, I felt the energy. So that connection online, while it's different, can have some of the same effects.
How have you have navigated the conversation over tithing and giving?
Jonathan Brooks: Giving in our services is an actual part of worship. When we gathered together every Sunday, we do what's called a “soul-train giving line.” Everyone turns to face the aisle, and then we come down the aisle and we give whatever we have to give. And before we get started, I say, “This is giving time, not just giving money time. Which means that every single person in this room has a gift. Whether that's a handshake, a hug, a word of encouragement, a smile, whatever you have to bring, you bring it.”
And so in this season, I've just said the same thing. If you can't give financially right now because you just lost your job or you're struggling, how are you giving to your community? Who are you calling? How are you being a resource? Who are you giving an encouraging word to? And so because that was already the DNA of giving for us, it hasn't affected us at all.
Those who can give financially are giving through PayPal and some people have been mailing in their tithes and offering to the church. And even though we've had some folks lose jobs or get laid off, God has been gracious and faithful. Our giving is parallel to where it was last year. I just believe that's because giving in our church is a part of worship. It's not something ancillary and extra.
Have you had conversations with other churches that have maybe had more struggles?
Jonathan Brooks: Yeah, this is the question I was actually dreading.
So our church was one of the first African American churches on the South Side that decided we were going to close. As soon as they started saying gatherings of more than 50 shouldn’t meet, I said: “Pack it up.” And I got so many naysayers and frustrated emails and calls from my pastor friends because they wanted to know why I thought that was plausible and why I thought that was the right move. And I felt they were misunderstanding what's going on.
I don't consider this persecution where someone's trying to tell me that I cannot worship. I consider this precaution, where I'm being advised by health professionals that this could be more detrimental to our society if we gather in these ways, and so we need to be creative.
However, as time went on, I recognized that the issue was not necessarily that I was choosing not to meet, it was that I was able to be creative and they were struggling with it. I have had friends who are still gathering, even as of last Sunday, which totally bewilders me. But it's because of the giving. It's because if they don't physically have church, they won't get any money and their budget is not so that they can miss a Sunday. And so it’s such a conundrum, it’s such a quandary. Some folks just stop having church completely because they don't have anybody around them that can help them navigate this new way of being.
And I think that's just true in poor communities, period. Like, to be honest with you, this is a white-collar pandemic. It's not a blue-collar pandemic. The folks who serve us all and make things run still have to go to work, which is the majority of my congregation.
How does having a large percentage of your congregation still working affect your pastoral ministry?
Jonathan Brooks: Once again, it's about creativity.
We initially thought that we might be able to keep our church open as a place for people to bring children. But that got shut down by the city, so it wasn't an option. And so we started to think through how to support people who may have to decide to leave a child at home. Are there ways that we can do wellness checks? Can we check in?
One of the reasons we call people every day is because a lot of times we're checking in with young children, we're checking in with folks who are homeschooling. We've done some homeschooling collectives, where one parent is working with three or four kids in different places through Zoom and Google Hangouts.
Then every morning at 6 a.m., Monday through Friday, we have a prayer call where people let us know who has to go to work, where they work, and how long they're going to work. We pray for them and we give them the latest information from the CDC. We do that as a way of gathering together and a way of making sure that as new information gets disseminated, everybody knows it. Cause a lot of times people work nights and they might've missed the evening news.
How does your pastoral care shift with the fear of disease versus the fear of violence or other kinds of dangers?
Jonathan Brooks: For that question, I think context matters. For us, in our geographical context on the South Side of Chicago, where trauma, fear, and worry are almost everyday realities, this pandemic is more panicking for people who don't live under these types of circumstances often.
I've heard people say, “I think the numbers are so high in the African American community, not just because people have underlying conditions and all that, but because people don't take it seriously.” And I would say to them is that it’s not necessarily that people aren’t taking it seriously. People need to understand the reality of living under the fear of not making it home every day already exists here.
And so my pastoral care has changed around to remind my people that this is not just about caring for yourself, it's about making a decision that will also help you to save the lives of others. I want you to take care of yourself, but in taking care of yourself, recognize that you're loving your neighbor as well.
One of the things we talked about in the mayoral call today is that I have a lot of people who live in high-density situations. They live in a building with 40 other people, in their household alone there might be three generations of folks. So how do we stop a pandemic when we live in high-density situations?
And so the pastoral care has gone from just counseling you to not be afraid, that God is with us, there’s nothing too hard for God, and that type of language. It’s also to recognize that when you care for yourself, you're also caring for your grandmother, you're also caring for the other senior members or people underlying conditions in our community and congregation.
I think the other thing that has been really powerful about pastoral care in this time is allowing people to actually be okay with being afraid. And I don't think in our community it's been okay to be afraid. You might live under trauma, you might live under fear, but you didn't say that. Now I'm counseling people to say, “This is hard. This is scary.” And it's allowing people to open up and be honest about their real fears and concerns.
Are there ways that you think that other churches in Chicago could serve or support congregations that are struggling?
Jonathan Brooks: Absolutely. Churchrelief.org is doing a “Churches Helping Churches” initiative. And so what they're trying to do is to help larger churches that have the resources to share those resources. To share financially by giving relief to the struggling congregations and saying, “Let's make sure that you can run for the next six months because that will be a drop in the bucket for our budget.” And then if they want to still gather but they don't have the technology, how do we share our technology? How do we train pastors and show them how to do this?
So sharing resources—financial, technological, ideas—I think this is the way. How are we still so individualized in a moment where everybody needs help? All of us can be worshiping together, right? And let's just share our resources that way.
Once again, imagination has to be the way we move forward.
Many church leaders and pastors of storefront communities are often bi-vocational, right? And so there's that added stress for many of them.
Jonathan Brooks: Yeah, that's actually a great point.
I mean, one of the things that I've decided to do as pastor of Canaan is to always remain bi-vocational. And it's so that I could always understand what my congregation or community is experiencing, and I never get disconnected from that.
But I not only know other pastors who have to work but some who've been laid off. And because of that, now the stress is how do I take care of my family, let alone how to be imaginative about what I'm doing on Sundays. And so that's when sharing resources becomes pivotal. That's when we being the body of Christ and saying, “Hey, we already doing a Zoom service on Sundays. Here's the link. Have your folks join in and we can just split the time sharing announcements, preaching, whatever you want to do. Let's just do this together.” To me, it's a no brainer.
Your book Church Forsaken: Practicing Presence in Neglected Neighborhoods echoes a lot about what you’ve spoken about here. Could you tell us a little bit more about the book and just how you think we can still be present at a time when we can't necessarily be physically present with each other?
Jonathan Brooks: What I love about this moment that we're in now, with all of the difficulties that it is, is that it shows the need for long-term presence. Because it's the communities that have been connected long-term that know what they need to do in these moments. When you have superficial and shallow relationships, it becomes difficult to navigate times when you have to be physically distant.
And so the simple thesis of my book is that our long-term presence in a neighborhood allows for people to trust us in a way that they can take leadership over the things that need to be transformed in our communities. And that takes some of the weight off of my shoulder as a pastor. I'm not trying to figure all of this out on my own, I'm actually just in relationship with my neighborhood and with my church.
I think presence is not about how do we gather together in a space. It's about how does our space begin to narrate what it means for us to gather together. It's about the impact on the place where we live and how we creative about responding to those specific needs.
So presence doesn't change. We dig in our heels even more into being present. What I tried to point out in the book is that it takes presence and it takes practice. It's not just, “Let's just be together.” It's, “Let's be together and let's work together and do things together.” And so now, in this time of social distancing, what we're recognizing is people are figuring out how we can be together and how we can work together, even if we're not in the same vicinity.
And so I think that church now has the opportunities to catch up to where society has been because we've been lagging behind for so long. And this pandemic has given us an opportunity to fast forward and catch up to where culture has been heading, which is to be present with one another virtually but still practice what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.
As we conclude this conversation, could you share with us some specific and concrete needs that you, your church, and your neighborhood have right now that our listeners can be praying for?
Jonathan Brooks: At the top of that list is the fact that some pretty difficult statistics came out this week about Chicago, as far as the racial demographics around who has the virus. There are over 5,000 confirmed cases in the Chicago area with about 118 deaths. And 52% of the cases and 81 of the deaths are African American. That's 10 times higher than the national average. So if you could be praying for the city's response with a new racial equity rapid response team, that we would get not only information but better testing and healthcare to the most vulnerable places in our city and people.
If you could also be praying for those who have been laid off and who need financial assistance. Our church has set up a financial equity plan where we are giving to our congregants based on need. Of course, we're not a huge church, and so if there are other ways, or people want to donate to that, that would be amazing. But just be praying that people can sustain financially during this time.
And then I think the last one would be to pray that people would mentally, physically, and spiritually be able to endure during this time of great fear and indecisiveness. We're just in an unprecedented time. And so you're seeing how it's impacting people in holistic ways. So be praying for one another—not just spiritually, but mentally, physically, financially, in every way, as this thing has had a total impact on everyone.
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