On June 7, Rev. Ira Acree, the pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church, 1256 N. Waller Ave., walked to the pulpit of his Austin church for the first time in several weeks.
“Millions didn’t make it, but I am one of the ones who did,” Acree told a gathering of about a dozen masked and socially distant parishioners during a service that was streaming to a larger body of believers online.
Acree had cause to rejoice. He and his wife had both contracted COVID-19 and lived to talk about the experience. Many Blacks across the country did not — including Adrew Betts, the chairman of Greater St. John’s deacon board. Betts died in early April.
At the time, Acree stated that Betts’ death “has left a great void in the leadership helm of our church and community.”
Weeks later, while preaching on one Sunday in May, Acree began coughing.
“I was feeling some kind of way up to Mother’s Day weekend,” Acree said during a phone interview on July 12. “I was in the pulpit doing virtual service with about seven or eight people in the building. My wife didn’t feel well that Sunday and had been recovering. At that point she thought it was the flu. And in the middle of my sermon, I started coughing. In this context, in this environment, when you cough or sneeze, everybody starts looking at you. I was embarrassed.”
After his wife tested positive for COVID-19, Acree said he immediately assumed he also had the disease, as well. But the pastor said it took some coaxing from his mother for him to get tested, which he did three days after his wife’s diagnosis.
“For my wife, it was almost like a piece of cake,” Acree said. “She had, like, two to three days that were bad before she was 95 percent recovered. I had breathing challenges. I did a lot of coughing, I had diarrhea, couldn’t keep anything on my stomach and lost a lot of weight. But I feel fortunate that I didn’t break down. I was shaken, but not shattered.”
After recovering and emerging from quarantine, Acree confronted yet another world-historic crisis. In late May and early June, after peaceful demonstrations swelled in cities across the country to protest the May 25 death of George Floyd, a wave of opportunistic looting and vandalism followed. Many West Side businesses, including grocery stores and pharmacies, closed as a result.
Greater St. John opened its doors several days a week after the looting to allow area residents to get food. The George Floyd demonstrations continued. One group of West Side pastors and community leaders planned a protest march on Sunday, June 7, from City of David Church, 5624 W. Division St., to the Chicago Police Department’s 15th District headquarters, 5701 W. Madison St.
A West Side protest march, however, would not be the same without Acree, who had made up his mind that he would cut back on his physical activity for his own wellbeing and for the wellbeing of his followers.
“For one, I wasn’t physically as strong as I needed to be,” he said. “Second, I have influence. As a leader, some people will follow you to hell and back, because they believe in you. I didn’t want to take advantage of those people. I thought it would be reckless to bring people out and make them feel compelled to come, as if it was this righteous thing they had to do.”
But then, Acree said, he had what he calls a revelation.
“That Saturday before the march, I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “A revelation came to mind that I hadn’t even thought of and it was simply this: You will not march for the civil rights issue of your day and time? Police reform? This is on your watch and your reason for not doing it is because you don’t want to put other people’s life or health at risk.
“But with every civil rights issue, there have been people who cared and advocated and risked their health and even their life — whether Harriet Tubman or Nat Turner or those who were attacked by dogs and sprayed by water hoses. People’s safety, health and lives were at risk.”
And so, on June 7, Acree — joined by Congressman Danny K. Davis and other local clergy, elected officials and community leaders — marched from City of David to the police station.
Two weeks later, on Father’s Day, Acree stood at the corner of Central and Ohio avenues to speak out at against the murder of 3-year-old Mekhi James, who was fatally shot on the Austin block where Acree stood the day before.
The toddler was shot in the back by someone in a blue Honda who had allegedly been aiming for James’ 27-year-old father, according to Chicago Police. At the June 21 press conference, Acree and other members of the Leaders Network, the ecumenical faith-based organization he co-chairs with Rev. Marshall Hatch, to announce a $5,000 reward for any information leading to the toddler’s murderer.
“We say his name! Mekhi James! His life matters, as well,” said Hatch, who lost his sister and his best friend to COVID-19. “None of us can go forward with a simple Father’s Day dinner without coming to this corner on the block where this baby lost his life in what really is a scandalous crime.”
On July 3, Acree opened his church for the funeral of Amaria Jones, the 13-year-old girl who was killed by a stray bullet while showing her mother dance moves inside of their Austin home. Acree said that while the family doesn’t attend his church, he allowed them to have the funeral at Greater St. John, anyway — something that wasn’t easy given social distancing requirements.
Acree said that he’s gotten six more funeral requests, but his church simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to comply with the constant cleaning and regular social distance monitoring, among other critical rituals that constitute mourning in a pandemic.
On July 12, Acree said that he’s really been living through a “trifold pandemic,” which he added later could be called a “four-way pandemic,” when the crisis of gun violence is added to the tripartite threat of COVID-19, systemic racism and economic pain.
On the first Sunday in June, when he returned to the pulpit for the first time since recovering from COVID-19, Acree said that he’d been given a second chance at life, another opportunity to talk about the much deeper pain affecting African Americans — something his congregants attested to, as well.
“We’ve been going through this for quite some time, but I think this pandemic made things different,” said Jonathan Todd, a political activist in Austin who attends Greater St. John. “People were stuck in the house and they couldn’t escape what they had normally been escaping, because seeing Laquan McDonald get shot 16 times is no different than George Floyd getting a knee on his neck. The difference is that now people had to see it. But what actions are we going to take to keep us from resorting back to [that pre-pandemic complacency]?”
“We talk about COVID-19,” said Acree, “but we’ve been in a pandemic since 1619.”