Drive-in services offer a smile, a wave, and a new form of hope and connection

By Sarah Hall
Beacon Correspondent

So far, yet still quite near. Technology has allowed people who find it necessary to distance themselves physically, to remain in close contact in other ways. Here, Pastor Denise Kwiatkowski conducts Palm Sunday services at the Trinity United Methodist Church in Waldo. — Submitted photo

For Trinity United Methodist Church in Waldo, offering drive-in services has been an ongoing experiment in finding an uplifting – if imperfect – new way to worship in a changed world.

The small congregation banded together to quickly put in place the technology, logistics and advertising necessary to offer its first outdoor, drive-in service at 9:30 a.m. on Palm Sunday.

They attracted about 65 participants, which is typical for the church in more normal times and surprising in these strange ones. Attendees took part from the safety of their vehicles and in the church parking lot, while listening in on their car radios. Similar services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday followed. Then on Easter Sunday, nearly 90 people, including some who had never been to the church before, joined in.

“We hoped to be able to come together as a church family,” said Pastor Denise Kwiatkowski, who became the church’s minister about four years ago. “We hoped to offer others the opportunity to worship on Easter. We hoped to show the community who we are. And we absolutely achieved that.”

One of the biggest benefits, she added, was “that we got to take control in an out-of-control situation.”

A team of eight church members worked behind the scenes to find necessary resources, overcome numerous obstacles and make the new form of worship possible.

A lot of people have talked about the loneliness that social distancing imposes, Kwiatkowski explained. “But waving to your neighbor in the car next to you, and having someone wave and smile back at you, lifts you up.”

Making drive-up services happen proved to be a challenge, even though the church has been streaming live on Facebook for the past two years.

“This was not done easily,” Kwiatkowski pointed out. “This was not a 10-minute preparation.”

She first started envisioning how drive-up services might be offered after discussing it with other pastors in an online clergy meeting via ZOOM.

One piece of equipment was essential for her church to even consider this new form of worship.

“We needed an FM transmitter and tried to buy one, but every other minister in the world wants to do this also, and FM transmitters were nowhere to be found,” said Kwiatkowski.

Someone then suggested reaching out to those who coordinate large Christmas light displays, synchronized with music, and finding out if one of these folks might have an FM transmitter to borrow.

Mike Ciske of Ciske’s Country Christmas Light Show in Cedar Grove ended up coming to the congregation’s rescue and loaning them the equipment.

“He is a wonderful man who was so gracious to us,” Kwiatkowshi said.

“But hooking up electronics is not my strong suit,” she added. “This was not going to be a pastor Denise thing alone. I needed a lot of help.”

The team found an empty spot on FM dial and claimed it. Test runs and sound checks followed. The team of eight had to figure out how to coordinate a smooth presentation from the pastor, professional keyboardist Thomas Pibal, two singers and others, using a total of four different microphones.

They had to resolve problems with feedback and echoing that seemed to be caused by spacing and the canopy that was over them, which is in front of the church. They learned that they had to bundle up and spread out more, getting out in the open, past the canopy – and laying cords all over the place.

Even so, the sound at the first service on Palm Sunday was a little static-y, but that issue was quickly addressed.

Then came the snow on Maundy Thursday.

“We got blizzarded on!”, Kwiatkowski exclaimed.

A decision had been made to take advantage of daylight and hold drive-in, evening services an hour earlier than the indoor ones that had typically started at 7 p.m.

“At five minutes to six, the wind kicked up and the snow started coming down in buckets,” Kwiatkowski said. “The computer and camera for Facebook streaming got knocked down on the ground.”

On Easter, the threat of bad weather meant that some equipment had to be kept inside.

But the team had found a way to improvise and offer communion.

“We had some ladies who suited up and put masks on, and put the wine in a little cup and the bread in a baggie,” added Kwiatkowski. “They put that in a lunch bag with a bulletin and a little gift – either a key chain or a bookmark with a Bible verse on it.”

Even when the planning team was making preparations indoors, they exercised precaution, she said. “We wore masks. We practiced social distancing. Whenever we touched anything that would be going out the door, we wore gloves.”

“My photographer and sound technician was Joe Hilke of Plymouth,” she added. “I am so grateful to him. He put in a lot of work on this.”

Kwiatkowski acknowledged that while the drive-up services are certainly far better than nothing, they are still not quite as satisfying as a typical church service.

“We are a hugging congregation, and that’s against the rules right now,” she conceded. “But it’s been wonderful to be able to get together somehow, especially for Easter, because many people did not get the opportunity to spend Easter with anybody.”

“We had a lot of visitors,” Kwiatkowski said. “We saw a lot of new faces. Most of them probably have church homes already, but we’re just trying to give them an option. We were very fortunate to get the use of that FM transmitter.”

After the drive-up service on Easter, her own family gathering with her husband, their five grown children along with their spouses and their five grandchildren was via ZOOM.

“When you can’t see your kids and grandkids in person, it’s truly a different world,” Kwitkowski pointed out. “But to be able to see at least your church family is a great big deal. I have a few people on quarantine who were very disappointed that they could not come.”

“When you’re alone in your home, you don’t have other people from your church family smiling back at you. The wave and the smile lift us up,” she noted. That is why she is hoping to continue offering drive-up services at 9:30 a.m. on Sundays until the coronavirus pandemic is past, and social distancing restrictions are lifted.

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