On Sunday, Greater St. John Bible Church, 1256 N. Waller in Austin, held its typical 10 a.m. service. There was singing, church announcements, prayers and an offering.
The church’s pastor, Rev. Ira Acree, delivered a sermon scattered with pop cultural references — from the late rapper DMX to Muhammad Ali to Tom Brady — and that galvanized parishioners (“preach reverend!” called out one captivated congregant).
As all of this took place, one notably atypical visitor sat quietly for over an hour, enjoying the Sunday worship like everyone else.
In his front row pew, Gov. J.B. Pritzker clapped, nodded his head, laughed and delighted in Acree’s genre spanning sermon before giving some brief remarks himself.
“When it comes to motivational speaking,” Pritzker said, addressing Acree, “you’re the G.O.A.T.”
The statement of approval caused the Austin pastor’s rapt parishioners to erupt in applause.
Pritzker’s visit to Austin came in the wake of tornadoes that ripped through five states in the South and Midwest on Friday. During his sermon, Acree called out a few of those states, including Kentucky, where his father is from, and Illinois, where a tornado collapsed an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, resulting in six deaths.
“For so many reasons, this holiday season is a reminder that through some dark and difficult times there is joy and there are miracles to be found,” Pritzker said. “Time and time again, Chicagoans and Illinoisans, people right here in this community, find a way to persevere through hard times, lifting each other up with the help of God.”
Pritzker said he traveled to Edwardsville on Saturday to meet with local officials and emergency first responders. During his remarks on Sunday in Austin, the governor connected Friday’s environmental disaster to the concurrent pandemics of COVID-19 and gun violence that are affecting people everywhere, particularly on the West Side of Chicago.
“I told [the people in Edwardsville] what I want to tell you now, which is in moments of hardship and tragedy, you are not alone,” Pritzker said. “We are one Illinois. And we are all together standing up for one another.”
The governor, who announced in July that he would run for a second term in 2022, didn’t miss an opportunity on Sunday to preview his campaign message.
Pritzker touted a variety of measures he believes are some of his biggest achievements while in office, including raising the minimum wage from $8.25 an hour to $15 an hour; increasing local education funding by $1 billion; increasing the availability of college scholarships; and working with the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus on its Four Pillars package of legislation that addresses police reform, criminal justice and economic equity, among challenges.
Pritzer also chimed in on the Republican Party’s attempts to introduce laws at the state level designed to suppress voter turnout and possibly overturn election results.
“They want to take away that sacred right from you, because they know you’re not going to vote for them,” the governor told the Austin parishioners. “I’ve never seen it like this in America. It is awful what they are trying to do. They say their goal is voter integrity, but you know that’s not what they mean. They want to keep Black people away from the polls. They want to take away your right to vote, because they know that you can make positive change.”
After Sunday’s service, Acree said while governors have visited his church in the past, Pritzker is the first one to stay for the whole service. Congressman Danny K. Davis (7th) and Ald. Chris Taliaferro, a member of the church, were also among the Sunday worshippers.
Meanwhile, Acree, who is a co-chairman of the Leaders Network, a West Side faith-based social justice organization, said that he’s sure the organization will be thinking of ways to help the people affected by the tragedy in Edwardsville.