As the sun set on the parking lot of Open Door Baptist Church in Summit on Sunday evening, cars of congregants parked in a semi-circle around the new pastor, the Rev. Karl Can-trell, who delivered his Palm Sunday sermon from a flatbed trailer parked in front of the fellowship hall.
With a global pandemic changing every facet of life, he drew parallels between Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s ordeal in the fiery furnace and the challenges society faces as people try to go about their lives without contracting — at best — cabin fever from a prolonged quarantine or — at worst — COVID-19.
“We might know some people who get sick. We might even know some people who pass away. But it’s all in the hands of God,” Cantrell said before giving the closing prayer.
Cantrell, who moved here eight weeks ago from Southwest Louisiana, has been thrust into strange times as he leads his congregation.
The outbreak of the coronavirus has all but cancelled traditional church services.
But Cantrell saw other churches turn their services into what resembles a drive-in movie theater minus the screen and became inspired to do the same.
“Actually, I saw it on social media. … I’ve seen different people doing it,” he said. “I thought it was kind of a novel idea. At the same time it allows us to practice social distancing while giving people the opportunity to come together as an assembly.”
Although Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves’ two-week stay-at-home order went into effect on Friday evening, there are allowances for people to get out of the house to procure essential services from a long list of businesses and organizations, including churches.
The marquee in front of the church displayed the message, “Jesus is essential.”
Many area churches live-streamed their services on Facebook over the weekend, with pastors standing at the pulpit in front of empty seats where choirs would normally sing.
While Open Door Baptist also live-streamed its parking lot service, Cantrell said church members still want to come to church, even if they're taking it in from their cars instead of pews.
“This morning we had more folks here. Of course, Sunday mornings have better attendance,” he said. “People have been great and faithful”
Cantrell said the church is taking recommendations from health officials seriously as it continues to meet in the best way it knows how.
There were no hugs or handshakes, and nearly all of the congregants stayed in their cars, with the exception of a few who stood beside their vehicles and some kids who leaned out of windows.
“We remind everybody to practice social distancing,” Cantrell said.
Standing at the lectern and grasping a Bible, Cantrell’s preaching often reached a crescendo of hope, reminding his congregants that God will forever be with the faithful, and they honked their horns as if crying out “hallelujah.”
But not everyone thought the arrangement was a good idea.
“We had somebody call us in this morning to the sheriff’s department,” Cantrell said, adding that nothing came of it because the church was operating under the guidelines of the governor’s order as well as that of health officials.
Some churches throughout the nation have been defying stay-at-home orders and have been holding large gatherings, while many in the area have either live-streamed their service or canceled services altogether.
“I know a lot of people are attending churches that aren’t having services for whatever reason,” Cantrell said.
With its property facing U.S. Highway 98, Cantrell was optimistic that the new arrangement may bring in some new members.
“It might give people an opportunity to come worship with us,” he said.
One woman pulled up in a Honda SUV with her dog for a minute or two and smiled in approval before leaving.
Cantrell said the drive-in services allow church members to safely worship.
“They can feel safe. People are not going around shaking hands,” he said. “They don’t even have to worry about catching even just a cold.”
Cantrell said the parking lot service also is a good way to keep tabs on the church’s members and their needs.
“I walk around at the beginning of the service and talk to some of the folks, kind of checking on folks,” he said. “ ‘Hey, do you need anything? Can we pray for you about anything?’ It is different times, not just for the church. This has touched every facet of life. Everything’s different.
“People are concerned about their retirement, they’re concerned about their jobs, they’re concerned about extended families in other places.”
Cantrell said he wanted his sermon to inspire people to not abandon hope amid the current crisis.
He said Christianity has seen many tribulations, including the plague. People and the church survived that and he believes we’ll survive this, too.
“Everybody faces challenges,” he said. “Nobody’s excluded from that. Sometimes we look at our life and think, ‘Man I’ve got it worse than somebody else.’ If you really just look around it doesn’t take long to find somebody who’s got it worse off than you do. It doesn’t discredit the fact that’s we’re facing hardship. There are people who have gone before us and faced much worse.”