On The SCENE With Ina Ruxandra Bochian
LOVE ALWAYS WINS: DR. WILSON AT ROMANIAN PHILADELPHIA CHURCH OF GOD
Sunday May 17th, Dr. Willie Wilson spoke at the Romanian Philadelphia Church of God. Along with Pastor Florin Cimpean, Dr. Wilson advocated for churches to open in a protest at the Thompson Center earlier last week.
During that press conference, Dr. Wilson said that he does not have a congregation of his own, but he is “in support” of the churches across the city of Chicago. He currently advocates for church leaders across all denominations and government to have better communication about how to handle reopening churches, with limited capacity while following guidelines to stand 6 feet apart and wear protective masks and gloves.
“The failure of communication is the problem,” Dr. Wilson said. He went on to say that maybe it would be a compromise to allow fifteen to thirty percent of their members to attend church. Though there are social media opportunities to engage with congregation members, many people live alone and consider church family. Therefore, some people, especially those who have no one else around during quarantine need community. Dr. Wilson is advocating for “reasonable accomodations” for people of all faiths to be able to practice their Constitutional right to worship. “We have to make sure that churches are included,” in the decision making process when elected officials determine what is essential and what is not, Dr. Wilson explained.
According to US News and World Report, “as of April 24, only 10 states are preventing in-person religious gatherings in any form. These states include Alaska, California, Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, and Washington.” In some states, there have been some compromises and government officials have collaborated with church leaders to allow limited gatherings. Other states, which categorize religious worship as “essential,” may hold services without limit. In some instances, legal suits were brought by churches invoking their American Constitutional right to practice religion freely.
The pandmeic seems to have raised many constitutional questions about religious freedom and free speech rights. Pastor Florin Cimpean of Philadelphia Romanian Church of God was faced with a lot of harsh criticism from all sides. Though I was not present, I watched the service on Facebook Live and recognized how emotional he was. I empathize with him and I can admit that I was one of the people uncertain about the timeline of church openings who voiced my opinion. To sustain my opinion, I suggested pastors read Romans 13:1, which states, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.” It seems the pastor took my comment to heart because he talked about this chapter saying that many people threw this text in his face.
Considering my own comments, I can understand where the conflict lies. First, I did not read the text in its entirety when I made my comment. I did not think about the contextual implications of what Apostle Paul was talking about in this scripture or consider that Apostle Paul and Peter were both jailed on many occasions simply for putting God above all. When Pastor Cimpean referenced Acts 5:29, stating that it is a believer’s responsibility to resist, I understood his perspective better. This text states, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29 NKJV)
I do not have my Ph.D. in theology like Pastor Cimpean and I accept that maybe this entire chapter is up for debate and discussion, much like parts of the Constitution are up for debate. While I am not suggesting that the Bible and the Constitution are interchangeable, it is relevant to note that a church leader is faced with the burden to interpret the Bible and the Constitution, while leading justly according to both. Sometimes this is a lofty responsibility because no matter what a religious leader does the criticism can be so brutal that they feel alone, marginalized, and oppressed by the government and the people they serve and lead. Nothing is ever straightforward in leadership, certainly not in church leadership. Pastors have a responsibility to the members of their congregations, but first and foremost to God. Pastors, unlike government officials, are anointed, not elected. There is a big difference that many outside a faith community may not understand.
Critics of the church who may not believe in God, or have never stepped foot in a church, argue that pastors and churches insist on opening because they face a financial crisis. This could not be further from the truth. First of all, most churches survive and are able to pay the mortgage and utilities because of regular members who have given consistently throughout the years, in spite of times of financial uncertainty. Secondly, an ethnic church like the Romanian Church of Philadelphia has always had a mix of people who are hard working, self sustaining, immigrants with businesses of their own and some incredibly poor people, who need assistance. Many pastors and ministers have a career outside of church and serve as volunteers and give their money from their businesses to help the church and the community. Dr. Wilson, for example, gave $300,000 of his own money to help churches during this pandemic, sending out $1000 to 300 churches. Because of the grace of God, those who have had more over the years have been generous to the church, to each other, and also many people in need in their communities and around the world. I can attest to this personally because I have received help from anonymous people from Philadelphia Romanian Church over the years.
For about a decade, I barely went to church, even though my own family volunteered and served regularly. Due to a variety of complications and health issues, one thing or another prevented me from attending regular service. At a few low points, when I was down to my last few dollars or overdrawn in my bank account, I received a gift card for food or some money anonymously to get me through. I still don’t know who sent me this money and I have been meaning to thank them but they did not want to be made known. What surprised me was that I still got help even though I did not participate too much because I could not at the time. I did watch the services online and attended when I was able to.
For me, online services are the norm and I may not be the best advocate for churches to open back up because I have been practicing social distancing for quite a few years, completely unrelated to the pandemic. My reasons have nothing to do with the church or anything political, but mostly with health and personal problems. Nevertheless, I do understand the importance of church attendance and God sees that I made every effort to attend in a limited capacity when I could. Last year, for example, I found myself in a desperate need of a miracle (which I still need). I made a commitment to God to fast for 40 days and read the Bible while I wait for Him to fight for me. During this time, I ended up writing 40 poems in 40 days, which later became a book called “Just Enough Faith: Fighting Terror With Faith.” Additionally, I made every effort to attend church, but I attended the services with less people and usually sat in the back. My chronic headaches and other issues sometimes make it difficult to deal with crowds and noise because I get dizzy and sitting in the back made it easier to slip in and out if I needed to get water. With all of these complications, I went as often as I could. I could tell the difference between being present in the physical building and listening to church services at home. I felt the love of the people and truly appreciated those who stopped to talk to me and pray for me. I also appreciated how well the members know each other and how they supported each other in different ways. There is love at Philadelphia Church. This church is called the church of brotherly love because it truly is like that. After months of being secluded from society, possibly unemployed, possibly alone, people need some sort of reprieve in person. The energy in the physical building is different than it is at home. God is everywhere, but there is nothing like being in God’s house, serving in community with God’s people. Even at a distance of six feet, community is important.
At the start of this pandemic, I made a commitment to stay connected and started my quarantine with another 30 day fast during which I prayed for all affected by the pandemic and also my enemies (the cyber stalkers who have been terrorizing me for three years). Some of my struggles are similar to those of those of church members who are ridiculed, called stupid, incomptent, or worse. As someone dealing with slander and ridicule, I am constantly looking to help those who are marginalized. Because of some of the topics I have spoken up about in the past, mainly dealing with corruption and duplicity, I know my bullies also attack me on the basis of my faith, along with my ethnic and cultural background. I’ve had people impersonate me and also send me threats, including death threats, purely attacking me as “a dirty Romanian,” and making fun of my “Jewish” nose and my God references. Though these parallel and separate injustices are occurring, I cannot stay quiet while people throw stones at Pastor Florin Cimpean because he does not deserve it.
I grew up with the members of this congregation and a lot of them are good people. Most of them are confused and scared now. Some are immigrants and fear being marginalized simply for being affiliated with the Philadelphia Romanian Church of God. Only a handful of people (less than 10 percent) attended the service, seated by families, more than 6 feet apart and had masks and gloves (from what I observed in the video). The masks and gloves were on before and after leaving their seats as people made their way in and out of the church.
The Sunday service from May 17th integrated many videos from congregation members who are still in quarantine. They sent in videos of themselves singing. The choir made a special video using Zoom which the media team played during the service. No one can say that the Philadelphia Romanian Church is not making every compromise they can to appease the government. However, as an ethnic Romanian American community who escaped communism to come to America, many have flashbacks of the persecution they endured in Romania before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The beautiful partnership that was born during this pandemic is the flowering friendship between Dr. Wilson and Pastor Florin Cimpean. Both leaders fight for human rights, religious rights, and civil rights. At the end of the day, some of humanity’s biggest conflicts give birth to lifelong collaborations between different communities. Seeing Dr. Wilson preach, standing alongside Pastor Cimpean brought me so much joy because it represents two community leaders standing together. What a powerful beginning.
Dr. Wilson’s full message can be found on Dr. Wilson’s Facebook page and on the Facebook page for Philadelphia Romanian Church of God. He opened by praying for Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Governor Pritzker and for all people around the United States who stand for God. His main subject was “Loving Our Enemies,” and loving those who persecute us. Outside the pandemic, there was something deeper about Dr. Wilson’s message we must recognize. As believers and members of the faith community, Christians must recognize that among America’s many sins, the residual sin of slavery is still upon this country. We must continue to fight to break every chain that divides us as brothers and sisters and come together as a family for God. We must also remember that fighting an unjust government started in the churches with pastors like Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Wilson talked about a time when he felt the oppression endured due to the color of his skin. Racism is still a heavy cloud today, but we have the power to stand united going forward. Because of his humble spirit and willingness to stand by Pastor Cimpean, I do hope that beyond this pandemic, we can break down more barriers. I pray that Dr. Wilson and Pastor Cimpean can lead by example and help believers of all ethnicities unite and bear one another’s burdens. “I’m so glad to be here today because I miss church,” Dr. Wilson said. “I’m glad the pastor stood up for us and I’m not being afraid,” continued. He also recognized, “People get fearful, people get threatened.” Not everyone is brave enough to get up and go to church, face the cameras, face the possibility of getting arrested, but the few who signed up in advance to stand united (apart) took a big risk. To the young people, Dr. Wilson said, “Take a page of the Pastor’s book and stand firm.”
After Dr. Wilson’s message and a virtual worship session that included videos from members who did not attend in person, Pastor Florin Cimpean preached a short message in Romanian. As a mixed Romanian American church, all church services have Romanian and English portions. For guests, there are hearing devices, through which they can hear the Romanian parts of the service translated.
“Most of the older generation…of this church…they escaped Communism. They risked their life. Some of them were put in prison. They came here because they wanted the freedom to worship. If communism could not take them down, socialism in America can’t take them down,” said Pastor Cimpean in the opening statement of his sermon. He went on to say that he is concerned for the new generation because they do not understand how good they have it in America and what freedom really means because they did not have to live under Communist oppression.
Pastor Florin Cimpean preached a simple sermon. His voice seemed more emotional than usual. There he was facing his Goliath, the Illinois Government, with the fear that he may be arrested for simply allowing a few people (less than 10 percent of the members) to attend service and exercise the freedom for which they came to America. I reached out to him and his son Saturday night and told them that I am praying for them. On his wall, I posted a message from a Bible Study I am doing with my other church called “Level Up.” The message of the day was, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you.” (Luke 6:27-28 NKJV)
I am not sure if Pastor Cimpean had his sermon prepared before my message, but I was pleased to hear him say that the church should continue to pray for the government. He said that the responsibility of the church is to pray for all who are in leadership positions in power. He also went on to say that the church is a force, “not because of financial resources,” but because of the power of prayer. “I implore you, do not comment in a negative manner about the leadership, the mayor, or any of our neighbors. Pray blessings over them.” “The second responsibility of the church,” Pastor Cimpean said, “is the responsibility of civic duty.” During this portion of the message, he referred to the other passage I had quoted to him from Romans 13:1-7. He pointed out that believers should be “good citizens, follow the law, vote.” However, he made the distinction between a local “executive order” and the law of the land, which is the United States Constitution. Given the “gray areas” of what some state legislators interpret as constitutionally sound and unconstitutional, some things are up for debate.
Unfortunately, a lot of people from faith based communities, especially immigrant church communities are not involved in politics or local government at all. Perhaps the “gray area” of the Constitution insofar as it applies to freedom of worship and freedom of speech may inspire more people to get out to vote. The pastor did not say how to vote, but to pray for those in leadership and be sure to get out to vote. Pastor Cimpean expressed his concern about the growing power of government to control every aspect of human life, including religious rights. “The government basically wants the church to shut down and shut up,” Pastor Cimpean said. He pointed out that he is not an ignorant uneducated person who wants his congregation members to get sick and that the church is operating with extreme caution. However, his reasoning for opening the church is because he believes that it is up to the church to resist when human and civil rights are violated.
“One of the reasons this is happening is because they don’t want us to speak. They call us stupid, backward.” While the government behaves under the guise of “protecting” people, it is a stretch to say that the government cares more about the members of a small immigrant community. “No one loves the members of this church more than me,” Pastor Cimpean said. At the end of the day, it is not the government who visits the sick, widows, and goes to drop off food to the poor. Some of the congregation members are newer to the United States and need their community and it is the pastor and the other church leaders who take care of them. By allowing about 10 percent of the congregation members to have a place to worship in community, the pastor is fighting for those who absolutely need this. Not everyone is running to church and there should not be a concern of “crowds.” Looking around the church, there seemed to be even less than 50 people with more distance between them than I have seen at Target, Home Depot, and Walmart. So then, is the Pastor really putting people at risk or is the Illinois government pushing the boundaries of its power to dictate what is “essential” and what is not?
As someone who is still in quarantine and will probably remain in quarantine for longer, I would not be the first to run to the church, but that does not mean that I don’t feel the burden Pastor Florin Cimpean carries. I would not want to be in his shoes now, nor would I want to deal with all the insults, harsh criticism, and falsehoods said about him. He is not alone in his fight. About 100 other churches in Illinois also opened their doors for in person services. Nevertheless, not all people are rushing to service and most stay home, like me.
For me, I live out my faith through actions, what I do, and how I love people, given my limitations. When the pandemic started, in spite of losing all my jobs and sources of income, I decided to make the best of my quarantine by leading several virtual fundraisers because I also think this is the responsibility of a person who believes in God. I reached out to the Mayor’s Office, the Governor’s Office and a few Congress members and Senators asking for their help to help me spread awareness. Though they acknowledged what I am doing, no one made an attempt to post about my project anywhere. I reached out to hundreds of media outlets to ask for help and only a handful even acknowledged my requests to repost about my attempt to connect with people virtually for a worthwhile cause.
I became really discouraged, but then a Philadelphia Church member sent me some money. In spite of being under financial strain myself, I wanted to pay it forward and used this money to sponsor a child in Kenya at Mully’s Children’s Family, donate to a few food banks around the country, and buy raffle prizes for those who donate to the fundraisers I am still sponsoring for mental health for Hilarity for Charity and Hillside Wellness Center. If I had more, I would give more because I know God is rich and will essentially bless my life for trusting Him against all odds, as an underdog. That is what I learned from growing up at Philadelphia Romanian Church. Some members of the Romanian Philadelphia Church donated and reposted and helped me to the best of their ability. Along with them and the help of other friends, we are doing our best to make quarantine fun and ask people to participate. Unfortunately, mainstream media chooses not to cover stories like that, especially about those who have a faith background, but quickly jump to belittle and attack the religious community. I am non confrontational and won’t be seen protesting, “Give me liberty or give me death!” Dealing with cyber harassment has already been a heavy burden for me and I prefer a quiet and peaceful life, while still involved in humanitarian and philanthropic projects. However, I do support those who are more brave than I am. I may not always agree with every action taken, but I empathize and understand people like Pastor Florin Cimpean and Dr. Wilson.
With a heavy heart, I pray for the uncertainty of this country, all who died from Covid-19 or are affected, and for all the leaders around the country, including all the leaders in the Illinois government. We are all doing our best to get through this and agree with Dr. Wilson that there should be better communication. As for me, I am doing my part to serve all I can with whatever I have while honoring my faith and honoring God. Regardless of what divides us, we ought to reach across all the barriers that divide us religiously, ethnically, and politically and love more because in the end, “Love always wins.”