Florence Christ drove into the parking lot at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Lebanon and rolled down her car window. “Are we your first customers?” she asked.
Her husband Kenneth Christ, in the passenger seat, leaned forward to peek around her and get a better look at the makeshift altar on the sidewalk by the house of worship.
Priests and church leaders were gathered outside. The church organist Ray Hendricks also was there, playing hymns on an electronic keyboard, safe from clouds under a sky blue pop-up canopy.
After exchanging pleasantries, Rev. A.J. Buckley, clad in a surgical-style mask and gloves, used a grabber tool to pick up a plastic bag that included a palm frond folded in the shape of a cross, as well as the church bulletin and Bible readings for the day. Mindful of keeping six feet away, Buckley used the grabber to transfer the items into the car.
Florence Christ pulled out her cellular phone and took a picture of the scene, saying that she’d never she anything like this again.
One can only hope. And pray.
Due to social distancing measures required by the novel coronavirus global pandemic, St. Martin’s Episcopal Church held a drive-through Palm Sunday service on Sunday morning in the church parking lot.
People usually flock to churches during disasters and other crises. Now, they can’t. So churches are improvising.
“At a time when we need church more than ever, we’re basically locked out of it,” said Carolyn Brown, a St. Martin’s congregation member.
“At least we’re coming together in spirit, and that’s the most important thing,” Brown added.
After receiving their palm fronds, the church bulletins and additional weekly readings, some church members pulled into parking spaces to observe the rest of the proceedings from the safety of their automobiles.
Sally Chapel was among them. “I’ve given up a lot of things in Lent. I’ve never given up church. This is a first, so the people who organized this are heroes in my book,” she said.
Suzan Namitz, Chapel’s sister, sat in her own car nearby with her husband Lester Namitz. “We’re so lonesome and so bored with staying in our own house that this is so fun to come down here and watch,” she said.
The novel coronavirus, she acknowledged, also was scary and sad, and St. Martin’s attendees have a personal connection to the pandemic, in a way.
One congregation member, Robin Barrett, a veteran of Iwo Jima and a retired priest, is living at the Edward C. Allworth Veterans’ Home in Lebanon, the site of a COVID-19 outbreak. Two residents died, and there were plenty of worries about others. Barrett didn’t get sick, however.
“He was here the last time we got to go to church. I shook his hand,” Namitz said.
John Thornton, the former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Idaho, is part of the St. Martin’s congregation in his retirement. He sat with his wife Jan Thornton in their vehicle reading scripture.
“We’ve come about 16 miles from the farm we live on to be with these people who have found a way to be faithful to the traditions of the church,” Thornton said. “It’s very comforting to be around them today.”
Some churches turned to live-streamed events and other online methods of delivering religion. St. Martin’s is among those, as well. There are readings, videos and other materials posted to the church’s website and Facebook page. But St. Martin’s also has many congregation members who are older and not very tech-savvy, so the drive-through service on Sunday felt necessary, said church leaders.
About 20 vehicles came through, several with married couples inside. The congregation has 40 to 50 worshipers total.
Palm Sunday is one of the most important services for most churches, and St. Martin’s is no different. There’s usually a procession, sometimes including live animals, around the church property, which pays homage to Jesus Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem.
“This is a big deal,” said church vestry member Sara Jameson. “This is where Jesus is coming to fulfill his mission for us, to die for us.”
Buckley said that Palm Sunday sets the picture for Holy Week.
The palm fronds, which are blessed, are kept and then burned the next year to smudge foreheads on Ash Wednesday.
The church also is trying to stay connected to people who are housebound on Palm Sunday. Packets are being delivered to congregation members’ homes, or mailed to them in some instances, such as with Barrett at the veterans’ home.
“It’s hard,” Jameson said. “We want everybody to feel like we’re here. We may be apart, but we’re close in spirit and close in our hearts.”
St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, located at 257 E. Milton St. in Lebanon, will hold an online only service for Easter Sunday.
Kyle Odegard can be contacted at 541-812-6077 or firstname.lastname@example.org.