2020 was a tough, unique year, that is for certain, but that does not mean it was without precedent. One of the great resources of our community is an online catalogue of the Evanston News-Index, which details most of the goings on in our community from 1915-1922. Of particular note as we remain under siege from a pandemic are the 1918-1919 years, where you will find evidence of a creative community trying to make meaning in the safest and best ways possible.
If you choose to read local news from that time, you will likely be surprised at how much was transpiring locally and globally at that time. In between admonishments to men who avoided the draft in World War I (crimes of ignorance would be forgiven, one announcement assures), jokes about the Kaiser “cooking his own turkey,” and American bravado about its place in the world at the conclusion of the war, you will find some familiar artifacts. Deaths of prominent and obscure individuals due to influenza, announcements about the number of cases of the flu, as well as predictions on when quarantine will end fill the pages.
In 2020, we’ve not only had the pandemic, but a-much needed reckoning on race and equity, as well as an eventful presidential election. It can be striking to see the breadth and depth of the issues that Evanstonians wrestled with during our last pandemic. If there is any hope to be found for 2021, it is in the fact that we have been resilient in the past.
As the senior minister of Lake Street Church of Evanston, formerly First Baptist Church, I spent considerable time looking at how religious communities handled the Spanish Flu, quarantine, and a quickly changing world in the lead-up to Christmas 1918. One of the most striking things that I saw was a lawsuit over the closure of Christian Science meetings in town due to the Spanish Flu, since they were classified as Sunday Schools and not church services. It was a profound experience for me to read about court cases involving religious freedom and the pandemic taking place over 100 years before our current situation. However, I am more sympathetic to Evanston’s Christian Scientists of 1918 than I am about current lawsuits from religious groups seeking to skirt pandemic restrictions.
The difficulties of navigating religious life in the pandemic were on full display in other ways, too. In a now near-unimaginable time before Zoom, churches of different worship styles and traditions came together to offer Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services together to cut down on the opportunities for spread. “Because of the quarantine, there will be fewer Christmas services this year than usual,” one announcement reads. Another notes, “The Christmas Eve services as Bethlehem Lutheran Church…will be postponed on account of the quarantine.” Back then, religious communities could set aside their differences, come together in a pandemic, and make meaning in as safe a way as possible.
After worshiping with my church on Christmas Eve via Zoom, I can relate to some of the angst that must have been felt by worshippers doing things differently in 1918. They were nimble, flexible, and conscientious of each other’s health. Those are Evanston values! Just as they made it through their difficult year, we will also have an opportunity to embrace 2021. I pray that it will be a better year than 2020, but I also know that this community has navigated difficult circumstances before – we are resilient.
While 2021 will not simply bend to our wishes, prayers, or good thoughts, it cheers my spirit to know that much of what we experience in this city will be up to us. Wearing a mask, continuing to take the pandemic seriously, pursuing racial justice and equity in our community, and working together to tackle our problems will make a real impact on our individual and collective lives. As for my church, we will continue worshipping online like many of Evanston’s communities, and we will also continue to look to the past and Evanston’s resilient, meaning-seeking spirit to guide us.