- Associated Press - Saturday, April 4, 2020

ODENVILLE, Ala. (AP) - The old cinder block stage across the street from Odenville United Methodist Church hadn’t been used for so long that brush had grown up and covered it, but by Sunday morning (March 29), it was the focus of outdoor church.

“Some guys in the church cleared the bushes and cleaned up the stage,” Pastor James Haskins said.

People drove up in their cars and parked facing the stage, which has three wooden crosses off to the side. Haskins preached from the stage. The congregation rolled down its windows and waved to each other.

“I would come hug your neck, but you know how it is,” said Laura Surles to a fellow churchgoer.

That’s the hard part, she said later. “We’re huggers,” she said. “It’s difficult. We just have to wave at each other and tell them we love them.”

In the back seat of her car sat Amelia Surles, 92, the oldest member of the church. She smiled out the window. She liked this even better than last Sunday, when the pastor used a bullhorn to preach from the front porch of the church to the people parked in cars out front.

“I enjoyed it last Sunday,” she said. “I got to hear the Word.”

And she got to hear more this morning. Haskins preached on Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, described in chapter 11 of the Gospel of John.

“Jesus found out Lazarus was ill and still waited two more days to visit him,” Haskins said. “Mary and Martha went up and said, ‘Where have you been? If you had been here sooner, our brother would not have died.’”

People may be questioning Jesus the same way now, as precautions against the spread of coronavirus have shut down worship services in most churches in Alabama the past two or three Sundays, Haskins said.

“We ask Jesus, where were you?” he said. “How come you were late? We needed you. Where are you in the midst of all this? He said, ‘I’m the resurrection and the life, You believe in me, you will have everlasting life.’ It is very relevant to where we are right now.”

Last Sunday, March 22, using a bullhorn borrowed from the police department, Hawkins preached to 31 people in 11 cars. This morning there were 15 cars and about 50 people.

“We’ll maintain our social distancing,” Haskins said before the service started at 11 a.m. “God’s spirit overcomes that social distancing.”

For this mostly elderly rural congregation, online services would not have helped much or worked as well as they do for other churches, he said. “Of the 50 or so we have in the church, 65 to 70 percent are 70 or older,” Haskins said.

“About a third of our congregation do not do social media, or are not internet-connected,” he said. “Doing Facebook Live or internet streaming would only benefit half our folks. The little ladies get out and drive. They go to the grocery store.”

Sitting in parked cars with the windows down on a sunny Sunday morning served as a substitute for sitting in pews.

”This is our alternative to not meeting at all,” Haskins said. “It maintains social distance. This is the way we have to do church right now.”

Gathering on Sunday morning, even at a distance, means a lot, said church member Roger Christian.

“It’s just important to come and worship,” said Christian, who played guitar when the congregation sang “Amazing Grace” from their cars.

“Welcome to church,” Haskins said as he opened the service. “Can I get an Amen?”

Someone honked. “Yes, you can honk your horn,” Haskins said.

“Right now we would normally pass the peace (shake hands),” Haskins said. “Raise your hand out your car window and wave at each other. Honking the horn is an amen. Turning your lights on means you’re moved by the spirit.”

Two men walked from car to car with a hat and a bag, taking up an offering. People waved checks out the window.

They recited the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, prayed for the nation’s leaders, for healthcare workers, and for the sick. “Our world is going to experience a new life when this COVID-19 has run its course,” Haskins said. “You cannot imagine what life is going to be like after this virus. It’s going to be awesome. God is going to bring a new light.”

Katie Roberson had her Bible open on her dashboard during the sermon and her 3-year-old twins, Sarah Ann and Seth, squirmed their way from the back seat into the front seat during the course of the service.

Another little girl poked her head out the back window of a pickup truck. An elderly man raised his left index finger in the air out of his window when the preacher made an important point. A poodle observed from a car window.

“I think people have faith in God,” Haskins said. “A lot of times we may not realize we have that assurance, peace and faith till we actually need it. We don’t give a lot of thought to the air in our tires till they go flat. We’re not aware of what God is doing around us all the time when it’s sunny, all is well and our lives are at peace. There’s a beacon that draws us close to God in our times of peril. When we’re not in control of things around us, God’s going to surround us with his strength and power. It’s like when 9/11 (terrorist attacks) happened churches were full, we felt out of control and we want that assurance. We want spiritual healing, spiritual peace. We find that in our spiritual community, in our faith community. The overwhelming love of God never leaves us. He’s with us now.”

Haskins said he’s planning an Easter Sunday service at outdoor the stage on April 12, rain or shine.

“There’s a need for assurance,” Haskins said. “Worship is so central to that. A worship community that doesn’t come together is like choking off your oxygen. They want to know things are going to be okay. It’s not in defiance of common sense. We heed the warnings. I am not in favor of people saying I’m going to defy the orders and we’re going to meet anyway because God’s going to protect us. God gave us common sense to listen to these leaders that know, that have this wisdom and knowledge. They are gifted by God to lead us.”

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