By Rick Wolcott*
A smattering of drivers honked their car’s horn on Sunday, October 18 in response to liturgist Pat George asking, “You know this COVID has certainly changed our lives but how many of you today can still say, ‘Thank you God for your goodness to me?’”
George stood at the pulpit looking out through the picture window of the “worship wagon” of Port Clinton Trinity UMC (Firelands District) as worshippers in the nearly 70 vehicles parked in the Sutton Center lot followed along in the bulletins that they printed off of Facebook earlier in the morning.
“If you’ve worshipped with us before, you know that we start with a toot salute. How many regular members of Trinity are here?” The sounds of many horns pierced the cool morning air. “How many visitors?” A few horns were honked. “Any furry friends?” A single horn announced the presence of at least one dog or cat.
For George, it was her first time serving as liturgist inside the trailer, but not her first time worshipping in the parking lot. “We’ve been coming to the service all summer. It’s comfortable but you know that you are at church. You’re worshipping,” she said.
“The importance to me of this service is that it shows people that we can worship God no matter where we are,” declared Warren Brown, the lay servant preacher who has been assigned to Port Clinton Trinity UMC since July 1.
Outdoor worship services using a low-band FM radio antenna are not unique in the COVID-19 world in which we live, but that’s not what’s happening on E. Perry Street in Port Clinton, just across the street from Lake Erie.
“This is the 61st year the church has used the worship wagon,” George shared. “We have a lot of local people that come in the summer. It was originally set up so they could jump in their cars, bring their kids and their coffee and be in the service before they started their day on the lake.”
For many years the service was held at a local drive-in theater with musicians and the pastor standing on the bed of a tractor wagon. When the drive-in closed the service moved to Mon Ami winery, and along the way the enclosed trailer replaced the wagon bed.
“It’s a unique way to meet the needs of the people and design our worship to speak to people in a different way. It’s wonderful,” said Carrie Sanchez, a member of the church since 2000 and its current music director. “We have people who travel from far distances to come and worship and then enjoy the day on the lake. It’s an exciting way to worship and now, in COVID, be safe.”
Tom and Sandy Gavel live in Middleburg Heights – 70 miles to the southeast of Port Clinton.
“We love the outdoor service, the community and the people,” said Sandy. “We came up here in the summer because we had a boat and mobile home in the area. We went to the outdoor service and started meeting people. When the service moved back indoors after Labor Day we went inside and joined the church.”
“We don’t have the boat or trailer anymore, but we come up here just about every Sunday for church,” said Tom.
Sanchez said the worship wagon has typically been used for the outdoor service from Memorial Day to Labor Day, but that changed this year.
“When COVID kicked off last March we wanted to figure out a way to reach people for Easter and that season, so we did what we’ve always done and kicked it off early. Palm Sunday was the first one and we had lots of people here, so we just kept going,” she shared. “Throughout the pandemic we’ve had on average 80 vehicles and 100 people – and five or six dogs. It’s a great way to be outside the box yet still be together.”
The Rev. Annette Dimond of Green Valley UMC (Canal District) was the pastor of Trinity UMC in March.
“At the beginning of the pandemic we had about 12 email addresses for people at Trinity. That made the usefulness of doing anything electronically on the internet seem at best minimal. Once the idea took shape and we figured out all the steps we needed to take to make it happen, folks at church all pitched in to make it happen.”
Church leaders thought through safety factors for the pastor and the musicians, reached out to the owner of the Sutton Center parking lot, consulted with the insurance company and the health department, and alerted the police and public safety departments and the mayor’s office.
“We invited all churches in the ministerial association to join us for a community Easter service. In the end we were joined by St. John’s ELCA and Lakeside UMC,” Dimond said. “Attendance for that service approached 250 people and we received an offering for the local pay-it-forward restaurant of over $4,000.”
“I’ve been told by church leadership that worship attendance at this outdoor service has increased during the pandemic,” Brown said.
“The service gives me a mental boost for the week,” Harriett Radvansky shared through the open window of her vehicle as she prepared for the start of Sunday’s service. After attending the outdoor service every summer since 1987, she moved to Port Clinton full-time earlier this year after her husband passed away. “The people attracted me to come back here. They’re good people.”
John Mack agrees. He moved to the area from Bristol, Tennessee earlier this year and began volunteering to run audio for the outdoor service.
“I feel it’s a way to give back to the community of God,” he said.
His work will continue when the service returns to the sanctuary on November 1 for the first time since early March. That’s because Brown said the plan is to “also have the outdoor antenna in place for people who don’t yet feel comfortable coming indoors for worship to be able to hear the service while sitting in their cars in the church parking lot.”
*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.