On Sunday morning in Sandy Level, Virginia, about an hour southeast of Roanoke, upbeat gospel music blares from speakers as cars pull past the sign that advertises the drive-in church. Churchgoers tune into 87.9 FM and honk their horns in greeting.
This isn’t a usual weekend, but Sandy Level Baptist Church is no stranger to unconventional forms of worship. Every summer Sunday, from May until September, the clergy holds “boat church”: Pastor Kendell Smith ministers to a floating congregation from a dock on a nearby lake. When Virginia went into lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, the pastor didn’t skip a beat; the next Sunday, the drive-in service was up and running.
“I’m thankful for this building, but it is just a building,” says Smith in a new documentary from The Atlantic. “If something happened and we couldn’t have the drive-in service, we would do something different. But we’re still going to continue being the church.”
Other houses of worship facing state shutdowns have started similar drive-in services and video live-streams, or else closed outright. For some, the mandatory stay-at-home order has been a contentious issue. The Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague, Virginia, sued the state for infringing on its free exercise of religion after its pastor was issued a criminal citation for holding an in-person service. The Justice Department filed a statement of interest in support of the church, and Attorney General Bill Barr has urged prosecutors nationwide to keep an eye on state orders that infringe on constitutional protections.
Smith, however, makes sure to remind his congregation that they are blessed to be able to gather, even if the circumstances are unusual. “I’d rather be inside this church like we normally are. But guys, listen, we’re not suffering,” he declares to an audience of cars. “We’re not gathered together somewhere, whispering in hushed tones, fearful that someone’s going to hear and the government’s going to come and arrest us.”
While Smith speaks, a young girl peers out of the skylight of her great-grandparents’ car. Another church member has set up a lawn chair from which to film the service on his cellphone. At least one churchgoer is confirmed barefoot, several others suspected.
As Virginia begins to reopen, the church has started phasing services back into its building. For those who would rather continue to drive in, the speakers are out and the transmitter is on.
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