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'Honk to say Amen': Some Omaha churches are turning into drive-ins for Easter

'Honk to say Amen': Some Omaha churches are turning into drive-ins for Easter

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An old bumper sticker slogan — “Honk if you love Jesus” — will get a brand-new purpose at some Easter services this year.

A number of Omaha churches plan to become drive-ins to celebrate the resurrection. Most are doing it only on Easter, though King of Kings Lutheran will do it on Palm Sunday as well.

“We realized that we are designed for community and that while social distancing is necessary, people need to be able to find ways to get out of the house,” said the Rev. Greg Griffith, lead pastor at King of Kings.

Holy Week begins Sunday for most Christian denominations, and this year it coincides with isolation mandates designed to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Services at area churches are canceled until at least April 30.

The drive-in services are one way churches can connect with their congregations during Christianity’s holiest days. Other churches plan to continue livestreaming worship services, and some plan special online additions such as music and classic sermons.

Passover begins Wednesday, and rabbis also have come up with ways to reach out to synagogue members during the weeklong observance.

Griffith and his staff were considering ways to make Easter special and foster community from afar when they came up with the drive-in idea. King of Kings is known for its large community Easter services at places such as CHI Health Center. Last year’s service, at Baxter Arena, drew about 5,800 people.

The pastor floated this year’s plan on a group phone call with Gov. Pete Ricketts.

“He said it was a wonderful, creative idea … out-of-the-box thinking of ways to continue normal living,” Griffith said.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services gave final approval and the King of Kings staff started making arrangements for the two outdoor events.

A 20-by-12-foot LED screen is being erected on the campus near 116th and I Streets, and tickets are being distributed via the church’s website. Audio for the services will be on 107.1 FM, a low-power frequency that reaches a two-mile radius.

For maximum safety, even the cars will observe social distancing guidelines. The church parking lot holds about 800 vehicles but only 140 free tickets will be issued for each of the three services — at 7, 9 and 11 a.m. — on both Palm Sunday and Easter.

People won’t be allowed to get out of cars or roll down windows. Church buildings won’t be accessible unless it’s an emergency.

At least two other Omaha churches have similar plans: Westside and All Saints Episcopal. All Saints will use the 107.9 FM low-power frequency while Westside will broadcast on commercial Omaha stations KCRO and Boomer Radio.

All three got permission from authorities, including the Douglas County Health Department and the Omaha Police Department.

Last week, Pacific Hills Lutheran Church had a modified version of the drive-in service. It has been streaming its regular 9 a.m. service online since churches closed, and last Sunday it offered optional communion in its parking lot after it was over. About 20 people showed up to partake in a three-minute service.

Pacific Hills celebrates communion weekly, said the Rev. Bryan Drebes, the church’s pastor, so he felt it was important to figure out a way to continue that for people who desired it while observing proper hygiene such as frequent hand-washing.

“Some people … don’t want to go months and months and not have that supper. Last Sunday, people were really emotional,” he said.

Drebes had planned to offer communion on Palm Sunday and Easter, but he canceled it Thursday after the Douglas County Health Department released guidelines recommending that car windows remain closed at all times during drive-in services.

Communion also won’t be offered at any of the three drive-in services, but the pastors at each church all said they are planning several things to make the experience — and Holy Week — meaningful. Each service will feature music, a sermon and, of course, prayers for the community and country and healing for COVID-19 victims. Each service will be an hour or less.

  • The Rev. Marisa Tabizon-Thompson, All Saints rector, said she was advised not to put out palms for parishioners to pick up prior to Sunday’s streamed service, so she and her staff decided to make a palm picture available online for kids to color. Families also can cut a branch from their front yard. “The coloring thing is more interactive” than just waving palms, said the Rev. Keith Winton, All Saints assistant rector.
  • King of Kings is giving families a recipe for resurrection rolls to bring on Easter Sunday. “We will invite them to eat them in their cars,” Griffith said. “It will be a whole family event.”
  • The Rev. Curt Dodd, senior pastor at Westside, expects his congregants to celebrate several ways. Services at the evangelical church often are emotional experiences, and some people will need an outlet for that. “You can honk to say Amen, flash your lights if you agree with something, use your windshield wipers if you want to raise your hands while they’re singing,” he said.

Clergy who aren’t planning drive-in services also are thinking of ways to make the season a little more special during a difficult time.

Rabbi Mendel Katzman of Chabad House is distributing “Seder to Go” kits with help from the Jewish Federation of Omaha so homebound people can observe the Passover Seder.

And though Salem Baptist Church can’t have its annual resurrection production, there still will be plenty of special music during its 10 a.m. online service. Ananias Montague, minister of music, says he will join a three-piece band and five singers for the streamed service in line with the mandate to limit gatherings to 10 people.

The church’s large, Grammy-nominated choir can still be heard when the church streams a previous resurrection production at salembc.org at noon on Easter. It then will be available on YouTube and at boxcast.com.

For Catholics, an Omaha fundraising consulting company is offering suggestions on how to observe Holy Week while social distancing. Information about “Holy Week From Home: A Guide for Catholic Families” is at The Steier Group’s Facebook page, facebook.com/thesteiergroup.

Virtual church can nourish your soul, but for many people it doesn’t entirely take the place of worshiping in community.

Westside Church member Mike Flair said praising God and praying when you’re with others is more rewarding than watching a service over the Internet. He’s excited to join his friends in the Westside parking lot on Easter.

“There’s just something about being together as a group of people that makes a difference, even if it’s not in the traditional sense of sitting next to someone in a pew, even if you’re not hugging or shaking hands,” said Flair, who is a deacon and weekly greeter at Westside. “It elevates my worship experience because I am with a group of similar believers.”

And those beliefs are what’s helping him cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

“Faith sustains you through tough times,” he said.

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Betsie covers a little bit of everything for The World-Herald's Living section, including theater, religion and anything else that might need attention. Phone: 402-444-1267.

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