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Why I’ve looked forward to church outside during COVID-19

I’ll never forget my 30th birthday because that was the Sunday one of our pastors addressed the “coronavirus” for the first time. I remember where my wife and I were sitting. I remember how ominous it all felt because I read too much news and was already pandemic panicked. But I also remember the graceful steadiness in our pastor’s words, not because he knew what was to come, but because he had faith in the One who was, is, and is to come.

He led us through what we knew about the virus, but also reminded us of the perfect love of Christ that casts out fear. He spoke to the centrality of our gathering together (Heb. 10), but also of the unique concerns of attempting to gather like normal during a pandemic. He informed us of how the church elders had been in touch with the mayor’s office and our city’s public health officials. He talked about the benevolence fund and how we could prepare to care for those in need. Then we prayed, sang, listened to a sermon, and chatted with one another after the service, as we would any other Sunday. 

That Sunday was the last time we’ve all been together in our building at the corner of 6th and A on Capitol Hill.

This isn’t the first pandemic Capitol Hill Baptist Church and Washington, D.C., have endured. The Spanish Flu of 1918 ravaged the city of 400,000 residents, infecting 50,000 and killing 3,000. Public gatherings in the district were banned, and our church then, as now, decided to accede the requests not to gather for services indoors. Eventually, some churches then, as we are now, moved their services outdoors.

Something to look forward to

I don’t know how Christians felt then about church outside, but our 5 p.m. service out under the trees is one of my favorite parts of each week. The monotony of working from home, conversations through Zoom, and the constant temptation to doom scroll online is a cycle that needs to be countered. We’ve traveled some to see family, but all other trips, for work and fun, have been cancelled. My brother recently gave words to a sentiment we all feel, “There’s nothing to look forward to.” I’m thankful we now have Sundays to look forward to.

Our first outdoor service was held on June 14. Though we were in an uncommon field of a gracious church in Virginia, wearing masks and socially distanced, the service began with the common greeting of our senior pastor, “Welcome to this gathering of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church.” After applause, another unusual experience at this point in our service, our pastor continued speaking over the chatter of children and creaks of camp chairs, “This gathering will not be like the gatherings we’ve been accustomed to, but it will be a lot better than what we’ve had the last three months.” Two and a half months later, the gatherings keep getting better.

In his pastoral prayer that first Sunday back, our pastor led us to pray for Mayor Bowser of Washington, Gov. Northam of Virginia, Gov. Hogan of Maryland, and President Trump. We also prayed for the doctors, nurses, and medical researchers combatting COVID-19, and those grieving the loss of family and friends. He then prayed for the Lord to humble us. He prayed for law enforcement, local police, the Secret Service, and the FBI who were at the time investigating the horrific killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. And he prayed for our members of color who were feeling especially vulnerable remembering incidences of their past.

This was a hard summer, for so many reasons, and it was good for my soul to be with my church family.

Disruptions as opportunities

Over the Sundays since, we’ve made memories. One of my personal favorites has been seeing how much each other’s kids have grown up. Our son turned one while we were cooped up at home, so you can imagine the fun comments from friends seeing this once-baby from the nursery now toddle around in shoes. Gathering regularly is how we share our lives.

Another memory was the night it rained. We weren’t halfway through our first song when, after a clap of thunder, we were dismissed. The rain came and quickly became a downpour. We packed up and ran to our cars, but we were all already soaked. I couldn’t stop laughing.

On Monday, the same pastor who spoke to us in March at the beginning of the pandemic, emailed, “we anticipated celebrating the Lord’s Supper together but received something more akin to baptism. I have to assume this was the shortest service in 142 years of CHBC services!” He then turned to encouragement, “Yesterday’s service is a little picture of what life is like for so many right now. We planned on church, we got a rainstorm instead. In all that we trust the goodness of God’s sovereign plans. He is loving us through good weather and bad and is working all things for our good, to conform us to the image of his dear son (Rom. 8:28).”

Yes, there are problems with meeting outdoors. It’s hot, it rains, and distractions abound. One Sunday, during a prayer, a fire truck sped by siren blaring. The church member who was praying, paused and prayed also for the emergency that truck was called to. I’ve learned these disruptions to our rhythms are also opportunities.

Enduring a difficult season together is an experience that deepens relationships. We have these new family memories of laughter and of tears, of begging God to end the pandemic and thanking him for his faithfulness through the swirling storms.

When I think back to my birthday weekend in March, it’s remarkable what momentous days those were. On Saturday, we had a party with our friends at my favorite barbeque joint downtown. On Sunday, my wife took me out to lunch, we walked to a museum, and then to a coffee shop. Six months later, some of those friends have moved away, we haven’t been back to dine in at a restaurant or coffee shop, and the Smithsonian’s doors remain shut.

These are strange times. We are gathering as we can, safely and with wisdom. Even when everything is confusing, we know God is still on his throne. His kingdom is still on the move. And he is kind enough to remind us that he is not yet finished with us as he did for our congregation one service in August. Two recent immigrants from Afghanistan walked by and were intrigued enough at the sight of a couple hundred people sitting in a field that they decided to stay and listen. “Faith Comes by Hearing,” reads our church sign outside our building at 6th and A. Yes, even when we’re outside our building, faith still comes by hearing.

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