What do you get when you cross a drive-in movie and a nineteenth-century revival meeting? In my case, just another Sunday church service.
If you drive by the Vine Community Church in Ocala, Florida on a Sunday morning, you’ll see a rough semi-circle of backed-in pickup trucks and family-sized clusters of camping chairs surrounding a small wooden stage with a drum set, a guitar, a handful of microphones, and a pastor. Some parishioners stay inside their cars, like Mrs. Flo, who doesn’t let that keep her from dressing up for church with pearls and perfectly coiffed white hair. Others lay out picnic blankets for their toddlers to play on during the sermon, and some camp out in the beds of their pickup trucks. For those seeking shade, a big white tent borrowed from another church offers some protection.
The Florida church doesn’t have a typical building, and met in South Ocala Elementary School until March. Pastor Eulie Brookins was out mountain biking on March 13 when the county school board called him to say that the church could no longer use the facility, due to increasing concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
Although the church doesn’t have a building, it does own a piece of property on which it hopes to eventually build. For the past few years, the small congregation has held Christmas Eve and Easter services on the property, taking advantage of the mild Florida winters for a service under a canopy of live oak trees and string lights. Since they already had the infrastructure, church leaders decided to bring weekly services outdoors as long as COVID-19 kept the school doors shut. They set up an extra speaker to reach people in their cars, and also offer a livestream for listeners who choose to stay home. Since then, church leaders from as far as Georgia have reached out to Brookins for insight on how to hold a similar service.
Outdoor services have brought a handful of benefits that livestream can’t provide. “Even though there aren’t hugs or shaking hands, people get to see people,” says Brookins. “It’s an encouragement to each other.”
Dennis Baxley, a Florida state senator and an elder at the church, added, “this is a reminder that we truly need each other. There are senior adults who have had basically no contact with anyone for three months now, and it’s taking a toll.”
The drive-in service has even allowed some church members to come who were unable to attend services indoors, like Phil Poldvee. Poldvee, who is fighting cancer and has a sensitive immune system that made indoor meetings dangerous far before COVID-19, can now attend church safely from his vehicle.
Church meetings under live oak trees and big white tents are about as Southern as you can get. But unfortunately, so is humid summer heat.
“The worst part is coming up,” Brookins said. Although staff at the school where the church met before the crisis would welcome the congregation back for the summer, the Marion County School Board has notified Brookins that the building won’t be available for June or July. “They didn’t give me an explanation, but they don’t owe me one,” he said. Facing triple-digit Florida temperatures, church leaders are unsure how long outdoor services will be feasible. Brookins is trying to work out a plan to use another church facility. “Worst case scenario,” he says, “we’ll bump the time up.”
Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis designated religious services as essential activities not subject to lockdown orders on April 1, days after a megachurch pastor in Tampa was arrested for holding an in-person service. Although they now have the freedom to meet, many churches have decided to hold services online anyway. Florida began the first phase of reopening on May 4, with no set start date for phase two.
But as some churches are slowly able to begin meeting as normal, churches like the Vine that are limited to drive-in and outdoor services face uncertainty with the onslaught of a smothering southern summer. “We’re building the plane as we fly it,” Baxley said. “But it’s our chance to demonstrate: why are we not anxious? We learn to have peace even in times of distress.”