Photos by Nick Smirnoff
A small congregation in California came together as one community on Palm Sunday in a drive-in service that began and concluded in the church parking lot — after members caravanned through town to mark Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem.
The Rev. Nancy Bacon of Tehachapi Community Church United Church of Christ led the 10:30 a.m. service, which gave churchgoers a chance to gather and worship together, while observing social distancing.
“We have a good parking lot for drive-though and thought it would allow us a chance to see one other, even just though car windows,” she said. “Social support is vital for all people.”
Tehachapi UCC has been keeping in touch with members via conference call for the last few weeks during the regular Sunday worship time because of COVID-19. Church leaders plan to experiment with the Zoom internet platform for services during Holy Week, but on April 5, Bacon wanted to give members a chance to connect with each other in person.
“Some of our members won’t take to Zoom, so having a different format to see and support each other seemed like a good idea,” Bacon said. “We know that God wants us to be joyful, so a parade seemed good for the spirit. We remember Jesus gathering with his friends for one last supper prior to his passion, so we gathered to do our drive-through palm parade, followed by communion in our cars, with each person bringing their own bread and juice.”
Members stayed in their individual cars to be safe. Participants in each vehicle were given a palm leaf when they first arrived. Following prayer, they collectively processed through downtown Tehachapi before returning to the church parking lot so they could break bread together. Bacon stood outside with her phone and hooked everyone up on a church conference call for the communion service.
It’s been almost a month since the congregation in the Southern California mountains has been together in the sanctuary. Bacon said hand sanitizer was always available, but on March 1, members stopped shaking hands as the church changed routines for greetings, receiving collection and serving communion. On March 8, Tehachapi UCC began preaching social distancing and by March 15, the final in-person service, church leaders encouraged anyone over 60 or with underlying conditions to stay home.
“It’s certainly been a challenge for our little church. We have many older members, so health is key,” Bacon said.
The challenges extend to all aspects of church life. The congregation had been renting out space in their building to 12 different organizations. But that ended with the “Stay at Home” order. Tehachapi UCC‘s staff—a part-time secretary, custodian, facility use coordinator, sexton, and ministry intern—have all been all furloughed for April and May.
“Previous renters are having their own struggles reconfiguring how to function. We hold them in prayer and hope someday to again be partner in our community.
“Financially, we are being hit hard, as we rely on rental income of our facilities and those have gone away,” Bacon said. “All of our staff, including me, are taking a two-month unpaid leave, to try and keep the ship from sinking. We are meeting by video to figure out other ways forward.”
Tehachapi UCC‘s moderator is trying to determine if the federal government stimulus package can help provide relief, Bacon said, and the church is readying new postcards advertising the facilities for quinceañeras, hopes to celebrate some of those events in the future.
“This is a tight knit congregation,” Bacon said. “People know each other and want to check in and hear from each other, so we have made that a part of our call and communal prayers.”
Bacon will continue to provide pastoral care, “and there is plenty of that,” as the people of Tehachapi UCC are “trying to remain being church in the midst of the storm and diaspora from the temple.”