By Clark Judge.
Like everyone else, churches have been forced to adapt during the COVID pandemic. Some conduct services remotely, by Zoom, Facebook or YouTube. Some hold them outside. Some try them inside. And at least one has Sunday drive-ins.
Wait. What? Yes, Sunday drive-ins.
The Congregational Church in Killingworth has been holding drive-in services since mid-March, with the last scheduled for this Easter Sunday at 10:00 a.m. It’s an idea first tried by the church’s new minister, the Rev. Dave Hammett, when he practiced last year at his previous ministry in Riverside, R.I. That was when COVID shut down in-person worship, and Hammett was compelled to find alternatives to bring the congregation together. Searching for answers on the internet, he found an idea that intrigued him.
Essentially, it calls for outdoor service, not within a building but within a car. Parishioners were asked to drive to a place of worship where they would park their cars, stay within their vehicles and join the Sunday service by Zoom, Facebook or a designated FM-radio channel while their minister – in this case, Hammett – stood in front of them and preached.
“We didn’t have to re-invent the wheel,” he said, “because others had done it in different places. The car provided natural separation, which is kind of ideal, and people can see each other. I thought there was no real good reason why we couldn’t do it.”
So he tried it, starting first at a local park before moving to the church grounds. Result: It worked. In fact, it worked so well that he continued drive-in services through Dec. 31, 2020, his last day in Rhode Island before leaving for Killingworth. Then he implemented them here, with similar results.
“I’ve heard from those who come,” he said, “who said they didn’t realize it would be as meaningful as it is. It’s special because it’s something different.”
That it is. Hammett stands under a blue canopy on a deck roughly five feet above ground level off the back of the Congregational Church. As he looks out on cars parked below and in front of him, he reads from a computer screen protected from the sun by a cardboard box. The service lasts 45-50 minutes, with parishioners following on car radios (via a local FM-channel with a reach of 1,000 feet) or via Zoom or Facebook.
As you might expect, there is the customary Sunday offering, though there is nothing ordinary about it here. A masked volunteer walks to each car with a fish net, then extends it through an open window to one of the occupants. A week ago, one parishioner dropped in an envelope before adding an unusual donation.
A large plastic crab.
“That was worth remembering,” said Hammett, laughing.
The whole idea is worth remembering because, as Hammett pointed out, “every week there’s some challenge.” There have been technical hiccups. Wind gusts. Rain. Sirens. A car’s dead battery. Cold. One of last year’s services in Rhode Island, for instance, was held in 20-degree weather, as Hammett and the church’s instrumentalist – a guitar player – braved the frigid air.
“You know how your mouse pad is somewhat heat sensitive?” Hammett said. “Well, it doesn’t work so well in 20-degree weather. It would move all around the screen or get stuck. It was like Whac-a-Mole. But it was one way at least to be in each other’s presence.”
With warm weather coming, drive-in worship is scheduled to end after Sunday’s confirmation service. The schedule has the church first moving outdoors to its Garden Chapel, site of Easter Sunday’s sunrise service. Then, if COVID restrictions permit, it will resume indoor activity on Sunday, May 23.
But the drive-ins won’t go quietly into the … well, afternoon. When Hammett held them in Rhode Island the normally passive congregation often responded by honking car horns. If there was something people wanted to say, they’d honk. After musicians played, they’d honk. If there was reason for applause, they’d honk.
“It ended up being our two-way conversation,” Hammett said. “It was like an ‘amen’ chorus.”
He didn’t expect that. But he liked it. And he liked it so much he’s calling on all those attending Sunday’s final drive-in to join that chorus, honking horns and waving hands for those who are confirmed … and for the simplest of reasons.
“So they can audibly hear the support,” Hammett said.
Photos by Clark Judge.