Trinity United Methodist pastor Tony Brown will hold services Sunday—with a coronavirus-infused twist.
He plans to hold a 10 a.m. drive-in service in the front parking lot at Blue Heron Middle School on San Juan Avenue in Port Townsend. John Miller, a ham radio operator and member of the church, has an FM transmitter from which the sermon will be broadcast to radios in attendees’ vehicles.
The sermon can be heard at 93.1 FM.
“We’re just lucky to have (Miller), who has the capability to do it,” Brown said. “It’s a creative time.”
“I’m pretty heavy into ham radio,” Miller said. “With that experience, it’s kind of nice I can offer this to the community.”
The Methodist church has been conducting sermons online for the past two years for those who can’t make it to church. So when the coronavirus started decimating communities and governors banned public gatherings, Brown opted to close the doors a week earlier than others, knowing he could reach out via social media to his flock.
“But it’s really different to gather for that, and not actually gather in person,” he said. “There’s something about gathering in person that has its own vibe to it: seeing each other, being in the same presence. It’s a different feeling.”
When COVID-19 struck, Brown’s YouTube video participation shot up. A regular Sunday sermon on the internet was attracting a half-dozen or so worshipers; with people quarantined at home, Brown’s seeing 80 to 130 people on any given Sunday. On Easter, 170 people were in virtual attendance, some as far away as Australia and Puerto Rico.
He’s already heard positive feedback about his plans for next Sunday.
“We have a lady who’s 93 and hasn’t been able to tune in to hear because she doesn’t have a computer or even a DVD player so we could burn a copy,” Brown said. “We told her about this, and she’s so excited.”
Getting May 17th’s services together wasn’t as easy as picking a parking lot and obtaining a megaphone.
Brown said he couldn’t have done it at all if he didn’t have Miller and his FM transmitter.
“In the U.S., it’s kind of difficult to broadcast on an FM transmitter; the transmitter has to be FCC compliant,” Miller said.
Last week, he brought a vehicle with a weak radio antennae to Blue Heron Middle School to test how far the transmission would reach.
“If we get good results with a mediocre radio, we have a good idea how far it will go,” he said. The coverage is between 150 and 200 feet, and with cars parked 6 feet from each other, Brown said he thinks he can accommodate about 40 to 50 vehicles.
Brown also felt lucky Gov. Jay Inslee included drive-in church services in the first phase of reopening the community as the pandemic ebbs.
“We weren’t going to do this until the governor allowed for it,” Brown said. “And I was surprised to see it. There’s only a few things you can do in Phase 1. To have drive-in church listed made me feel he knows how important and essential faith is. I appreciated that.”
He then received permission from the school district to use the parking lot.
“We’ll have social distancing between the cars, people will direct the cars; maybe someone stands with a pole measuring 6 feet,” he said. “We won’t have communion until we figure out how to do it, but it’ll be the same service — without the organ.”
There are other details, too.
“Someone said, ‘What if it’s a warm day; do we roll down our windows?’” he said. “We’re still trying to figure it out.”
A sign will be posted to alert drivers to the station. Volunteers will direct vehicles to parking spots. And jumper cables will be on site for those whose batteries might die after having the key in the auxiliary position for an hour.
And the message Brown plans to deliver?
He laughed. “You’re asking somebody who doesn’t plan ahead,” he said. “It’ll be about hope in the midst of fear. It’s a different time; people are trying to reimagine life and what it can look like for them: not having a job… Or an older person—I’m sure they’ve thought many times, ‘What if there is no vaccine? I either get this or stay in the house for my rest of my life.’
“Everyone is trying to figure out how to deal with this change and survive emotionally, mentally and spiritually in this new reality we’re in.”
The church also offers an online spiritual enrichment gathering every evening at 7.
“We’re up to Psalm 43,” Brown said. “It’s important for a lot of people. Without that … I think they’d say it’s kind of saved them.”
He knows some people who have relapsed in their sobriety or drug use as the stress of the unknown and the impersonality of online meetings overcame them.
“I recognize it’s not just about COVID, but dealing with this new reality is just not working for some people,” Brown said. “I think everyone’s in the same situation. I never thought I’d be doing what I’m doing right now. We just get creative in how to work around it.
“It gives me hope for our country. America is so creative, we’re such inventors, there’s such great ingenuity,” he said. “All these stories going on in society, people are already reacting and changing the ways we do things. There’ll be turmoil for a while, but in the end, everyone’s reinventing themselves in some ways.”
He’s looking forward to seeing everyone together … even if they’re not quite together.
“Even if being together is being separated by a car and a window,” he said, “we can see other people we love and care about.”