clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Faith over fear, from sanctuary to parking lot

A small-town Florida pastor balances the health of his congregation with its desire to worship.

Bishop Chris Stokes poses for a photograph near his north-central Florida home. Stokes is the pastor of New Beginning Christian Worship Center in Micanopy, where he’s hosting drive-up church services.
Bishop Chris Stokes poses for a photograph near his north-central Florida home. Bishi Stokes is the pastor of New Beginning Christian Worship Center in Micanopy, where he’s hosting drive-up church services.
Courtesy of Chris Stokes

The preacher interrupts his Easter service for a moment, stepping away from the pulpit. He walks toward a light that shines from the back door. Stepping outside, into a balmy Florida Sunday, he addresses a congregation of automobiles. “Honk if ya hear me!” he implores the drivers, backed up by a jazz guitar. They lean on their horns, an erstwhile “Amen!”

His face, worn and wrinkled after battles with prostate cancer and the death of his 16-year-old son, shines while holding two microphones. One to address the 10 people gathered inside the sanctuary, a limit mandated by Florida law; the other connected to speakers out back, where parishioners in some 25 cars listen to his first drive-up service.

Sporting a French-cuffed shirt under a pinstripe vest, Bishop Chris Stokes fluctuates between the two mics. “We’re figuring this out this morning,” he tells worshippers at the New Beginning Christian Worship Center of Micanopy, Florida — not far from Gainesville. “We’re figuring this out as we go.”

His congregation hasn’t met since the coronavirus scuttled worship services and forced members to retreat into their homes. For weeks, Chris muddled through, offering limited and virtual services. But something was missing. His flock needed to not just hear the word, but especially to socialize with their brethren.

In small towns across the south, Sunday service is more event than obligation. People look forward to showing up and seeing everybody there. And here in Alachua County, no one is dead from the virus — not yet. But to Chris, it wasn’t worth the risk. “I think one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make as a pastor,” he says, “is what to do about this.”

So he prayed and he weighed different options until he heard about another preacher who rented out a drive-in movie theater. Inspired, he offered an experiment: A drive-in service, right outside the church. Boosted by a pair of speakers, Chris opens by discussing the virus. “We hear about death every day. Every day. But amid death,” he says, channeling a timely Easter message, “there’s life. And we choose to have faith over fear.”

Passersby crane their necks at the sound of beeping cars as Chris wades into the grass parking lot to deliver communion. Beads of sweat dot his forehead and drip from his gray stubble as he treads from minivan to Camaro. “The body and blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ,” he tells each parishioner as he places a cup with a cracker and wine in their hands. Almost all of them wear gloves, and many — Chris included, for communion — wear masks.

At a comfortable 75 degrees, breezes tickle the Spanish moss draping nearby trees. Later, as the safe-at-home order lingers, the air will grow thick as a wool straitjacket, and Chris will trade his Sunday best for a logoed button-down and jeans. An easy sacrifice if it means his congregation can gather and chat. About Jesus, or anything else.

The service ends with a closing prayer, but the faithful aren’t ready to go home. From the back of the church, Chris watches his flock talking and laughing and celebrating the resurrection through the windows of their cars. Faith over fear, he reminds himself.