Pathway Baptist Church in west Kentucky is trying something a bit different from their usual service. 

Pastor Mike Donald, standing on a makeshift stage in front of a giant outdoor movie screen, is surrounded by congregation members in cars, honking enthusiastically on just about his every word. It’s Sunday service, but at a drive-in movie theater.

“It’s a little different today, so how many have your animals with you?”

Honks.

“So, how many of you are in house slippers? You didn’t put on regular shoes today — you got your house slippers on.”

More honks.

With state orders against large public gatherings in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Donald decided to have his church’s past two services at the nearby Calvert Drive-In movie theater in Marshall County, Kentucky, one of a few drive-in theaters still left in the state.

For Donald, the idea just made sense.

“We met with the owners, and they thought it was a great idea. They said ‘We’ve had weddings out here, we’ve had rock concerts out here, but we’ve never had a service,’” Donald said. “It’s always about being innovative, and going to church at a drive-in is an innovative idea.”

It’s one of the many ways religious leaders are adapting as they head into Easter and Passover. But in west Kentucky, there’s also a history of church leaders defying such orders and guidance, in this pandemic and in past ones. 

State and local elected officials are pleading with church members to stay at home during religious holidays to prevent more outbreaks, where church services have already spread the virus. And religious leaders are trying to keep the energy of their services alive in a new world they’re unfamiliar with. 

Virtual Worship

Passover, which began on April 8, begins with the Seder feast. But instead of celebrating with others in her congregation, Laurie Ballew had her feast virtually, with services live-streamed online from places including Louisville.

“The virtual Seder just highlights the ritual components of the Seder without the meal,” Ballew said. “Then at one point, there’s a break and we have the Seder meal.”

Ballew is the pulpit chair for Temple Israel, a synagogue in Paducah, Kentucky. She said while some of the around 70 people in her congregation miss being with family and friends, adapting to having the meal virtually has been relatively easy. Adapting is something Jewish people are used to doing, she said.

“We can’t say that it’s always easy, but compared to what our ancestors had to adapt to, and what my own parents and grandparents had to adapt to, adapting to a virtual Seder is very easy,” Ballew said.

Many religious leaders in the Ohio Valley have adapted to the new restrictions given coronavirus, yet there are some who have defied warnings issued by state and local health officials, and some have paid a price. 

Hopkins County, with a population of around 45,500, has among the highest rates of  coronavirus cases and deaths in Kentucky. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear earlier this month said many of those cases are tied to a church revival service that did not practice social distancing.

Hopkins County Judge-Executive Jack Whitfield Jr. has been pleading for weeks against in-person church services and other public gatherings. But he also doesn’t want to disparage churches, as he considers them the “heart and soul” of west Kentucky. 

“I really think that right now we’re concentrating just way too much on the churches,” Whitfield  said. “I understand that, you know, from the governor’s comment that we’re looking at church, but we’re looking at birthday parties, or funerals or weddings or every other place that people congregate.” 

Personally, he gets what church-goers are feeling. He misses his local baptist church, too.

“Every Sunday before all this, we would have a time where you get up and just go greet everybody. Shake hands, hug, talk to one another,” Whitfield said. “That’s what I miss most about having that in-person service, which is that personal interaction.”

Governor Beshear initially asked on March 11 that churches forgo in-person Sunday services. 

First United Methodist Church Pastor Jeffery Rudy in Murray, Kentucky, did cancel in-person service for that Sunday. But it was a difficult decision, a decision his church staff only made the Friday evening before.

“We were going to plan to go forward with the service and just tell people ‘stay at home if you don’t feel comfortable,’” Rudy said. “But we had the wisdom I think of the community and the governor, and a bunch of our own church leaders. Our bishop made the recommendation.”

 Rudy says in retrospect, the decision is an obvious choice. Yet one church in Murray did have services that Sunday, and local health officials say that led to Calloway County’s first positive coronavirus case

Murray has a history of defiance even during past pandemics: a preacher was jailed during the 1918 Spanish Flu for refusing to close his church. 

Rudy said he doesn’t want to assume the reasons for why some church leaders are still considering in-person Easter services, but he urges them to reconsider.

“I just wish they would know that faith does not keep us immune to illness,” he said. “Especially knowing there has been evidence that gatherings in the church, like especially what’s happened in [Dawson Springs, Hopkins County] we have proof … and worship is not immune to the things that happen in human contact, such as the spread of this virus.”

Beshear is pleading with churches not to have in-person Easter services, and one county health department in Kentucky is warning that drive-in church services may not be safe. Rudy plans to broadcast his service virtually.