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Parking lot church

First Presbyterian Church of Verona, New Jersey worshiped drive-in style on Sunday

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Worship was conducted drive-in style last Sunday at First Presbyterian Church of Verona, New Jersey. (Photo courtesy of Peggy Whiting)

LOUISVILLE — As she pondered how to lead worship while keeping the safety of congregants who may be affected by COVID-19 uppermost in her mind, the Rev. Lynn Rubier-Capron remembered her childhood, when she used to see movies at the drive-in.

Would that model work for the 50-60 people who normally worship at the 126-year-old First Presbyterian Church of Verona, New Jersey?

It turns out it worked quite well.

On Sunday, March 15, about a dozen cars pulled into the church parking lot as they normally would on a Sunday morning. But this time, drivers and passengers stayed in their vehicles and cracked a window as they prepared their hearts and minds to worship God.

Rubier-Capron and the worship team used a portable microphone and speaker to reach worshipers seated in their vehicles. The pastor, who played classical violin in her previous career, accompanied a pair of singers in hymns including “Peace Like a River” and “Blessed be the Tie that Binds.”

“On Sunday morning, I had the sense that congregants were excited,” said Rubier-Capron, who’s in her fifth year serving the church, which is about 11 miles northwest of Newark. “We hoped and prayed it wouldn’t rain.”

“Some unexpected people came. One is in the at-risk population,” the pastor noted. “She was devastated when she heard we wouldn’t have church” in the sanctuary.

Liz Hathaway, First Presbyterian Church’s education facilitator, live-streamed worship after having spread the word about parking lot church via social media beforehand. Worshipers passed the peace by simply rolling their car windows down a bit more to wave to their neighbors.

Rubier-Capron credited Hathaway’s insight and creativity for making the church’s initial foray into parking lot worship successful.

“She was thinking of drive-through church and texted me with the idea. She didn’t know that I was trying to imagine something like a drive-in church, though I was stuck on the technology question of how to get sound into the cars,” Rubier-Capron said. Hathaway’s encouragement “helped me step into the idea and look for solutions.”

Hathaway spent five hours on Saturday helping to practice for Sunday worship and working out the inevitable bugs. “Parking lot church would not have happened without her,” Rubier-Capron said. “She has also spent many hours making sure that I and members stay connected digitally and through social media.”

The Rev. Lynn Rubier-Capron preached on 1 Corinthians 13 during drive-in style worship last Sunday at First Presbyterian Church of Verona, New Jersey. (Photo courtesy of Peggy Whiting)

Rubier-Capron preached on a familiar epistle passage — 1 Cor. 13:1-13, “The Gift of Love,” which Paul concludes by mentioning faith, hope and love.

On faith, Rubier-Capron told drive-in worshipers this: “When we name our fear we discover that is not the whole of who we are. The challenge we face is real. But suddenly we have access again to a large perspective,” faith in the “God who created us, God who redeems us and God who sustains us.”

On hope, she discussed the walk in the park she’d taken the day before as a break from sermon preparation. “I walk in the park a lot,” she said. “For the first time, I saw entire families out walking with the children and their pets together. This enlivened my hope — God is redeeming all things and God will redeem this situation as well. I have already seen signs of it, like (Saturday) in the park.”

At that point, she invited worshipers to either name their hope out loud in their vehicles or mention them in the comments section of the livestream.

Then there’s love.

“We are social distancing as an act of love,” she said, “love for our neighbor, whom we don’t want to become ill; love of ourselves; and love of our society, which needs time to shore up our medical responses to the unique coronavirus.”

Soon after that, ushers approached worshipers in their cars, signing them up to check on fellow church members and friends twice during the week. The ushers had been trained to stay a safe distance away as they took down the information.

As well, worshipers were invited to join in the city’s effort to coordinate volunteers to pick up and deliver groceries to seniors who Rubier-Capron said “should not be shopping in grocery stores right now.”

“Faith,” she said, “puts our fears where they belong, in the larger, more capable hands of God and puts us, also, back into God’s hands.”

“Hope lightens us so that we can start to see things that were formerly not visible.”

“And love is God’s power to let that faith and hope shape us and our world in concrete ways.”

“It was a holy experiment,” Rubier-Capron said of her experience with drive-in church. “We will try to tighten it up for next Sunday.”

“We think it’s meaningful to this community that they know their church is still here,” she said. “We are willing to sacrifice not being in the sanctuary together if it means we will help flatten the curve.”

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