McALLEN — Blaring car horns would normally suggest fits of road rage, or unattended alarms sounding. But on Sunday morning, it meant “Amen.”
As fears of the coronavirus have prohibited large gatherings in the Rio Grande Valley, the faithful had to consider those limits stressed by public health officials. That means service in St. John’s Episcopal Church’s sanctuary was canceled.
It instead took place in the parking lot.
“The church is not the building,” Rev. Rod Clark, rector of the McAllen church, said while looking out to the overflowing lot. “It is not the walls or the campus, it is the people.”
This was the first Sunday service after Gov. Greg Abbott declared an executive order restricting social gatherings to 10 or fewer people. On average, the church sees about 250 people every Sunday.
Two small stages for Clark, 47, were positioned at the center of the parking lot, each boasting a tall cross for everyone to see. Car windows were rolled down, and glee filled the air as members of all ages waved and caught up with each other from the distance of parking spaces. This was probably the first time in a while that children saw people other than their family; it was probably also their first time being outside of their homes in a week.
A piano was brought outside, standing over fallen leaves that scattered the pavement. Playing was Daniel Mego while the church’s music minister, Veda Ojeda, sang worship songs — one being “It Is Well In My Soul” by Audrey Assad. Speakers were positioned around the lot, but attendees could also tune into a radio station to hear the word and worship.
Some members struggled to reverse park, but being able to face their fellow churchgoers was worth it. There were some children seen peeking their heads out of windows, others were stretching as far as they could to greet friends. By the time service started, several children climbed out of their car’s sunroof, settling at the car top with their siblings to listen to the sermon.
Lucy Barrow, mother of three, said that being able to see their church community was refreshing — even if it was through their car’s windshield. A bottle of hand sanitizer stood on their car’s hood.
“Even though they are across the parking lot in their own car, it’s still nice to see them,” said Lucy, a high school teacher for Sharyland ISD who has been attending St. John for five years.
Her husband, Nathan Barrow, who was sitting in the driver’s seat, explained that the past week has been unsettling for him and his family, making their efforts to attend service more critical than before.
“I wanted to show them that life is going to go on, and that we are going to get through this,” said Nathan, a federal agent for the U.S. Department of Labor. “That church is consistent, and of how resilient we could be, that though we could not go to our church the normal way, it won’t stop the worship.”
Their son, James Barrow, 10, hesitated to say he was good when asked how he was doing.
“I am good, but kind of scared,” he said. James attended kindergarten and first grade at St. John’s Episcopal School.
He later explained that he was most worried about not being able to see his friends for a while. However, this special Sunday service gave him hope.
“It makes me feel happy that somebody is actually doing this,” James said, with his two other siblings, Thomas, 11, and Elizabeth, 8, playing in the back seat. “I know that even though it can be scary, it is going to be OK. I think about how God is with me. “
As church-goers found their parking spots, they were handed a guide that explained how service was going to be held. A honk translated to an “Amen;” headlights were supposed to be turned on while they read scriptures; hazards on while praying, windshield wipers during confession.
And, instead of shaking hands while exchanging “Lord be with you” with each other, congregates were asked to hold up peace signs. Members stuck their hands high outside of their cars. Children stood on top of their cars raising peace signs to everyone.
Clark’s sermon encouraged listeners to reevaluate their fears, and why they have them. He pushed his congregates to find the root of their anxiety as the pandemic continues to cause uncertainty in many aspects of their lives.
“If we only focus on our fear and anxiety and panic being revealed, then we are stopping short,” he said. “We have to go deeper… It’s because of our love. It’s because of our love for our neighbors, families, children, grandparents.”
He continued: “I am worried that we lose our affection for each other out of our isolation, I am worried that after this pandemic has passed, we won’t know how to embrace each other. We all need God to pull back that veil, to pull back that curtain and reveal to us that the nature of our fears is all out of love.”
As the church prayed together, Liza Garza was seen sitting at her car’s rooftop, embracing her three children. One wept.
Someday soon, they will be able to park and leave their cars for regular service inside the church’s sanctuary once again. It could be weeks, or seasons until that happens, though.
A week ago, the church’s parking lot was just that: a lot. Now, it is a reminder for congregates to remain faithful through distressing times.