The day before Easter Sunday I drove to Hobbs to attend services at the evangelical ChooseLife Church. I was bracing for a service to be held in defiance of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s order banning mass gatherings at houses of worship in New Mexico. I dreaded the prospect of open conflict. I also dreaded the thought of spending time in a building with hundreds of closely-packed worshippers – exactly the kind of circumstance that health experts are warning people to avoid because of COVID-19.
I arrived in Hobbs after dark on Saturday and proceeded to the church to familiarize myself with the setting. Expecting an empty parking lot and perhaps a marquee announcing the time of the Sunday service, I was surprised to find a scene of bustling activity as people working under spotlights endeavored to set up a giant stage and sound system.
I was warmly greeted by pastor Greg Kalstrup, who explained the church would be holding “drive-in” services, allowing people to attend in their cars and avoid conflict with the ban. Kalstrup described the plan for setting up two stages in the lot, one for youth services and one for adults. There would be three services at each, all broadcast on the church’s YouTube channel so that the faithful could remain in their cars—or at home—while receiving the word of God. Smiling at the phalanx of speakers ready for the stage, Kalstrup predicted, “We’re going to make some noise!”
As he hustled off to oversee workers, Faith Shropshire, daughter of senior pastor Dean Shropshire, approached me. “We were on the phone with the governor until 5:30 today,” she said. “You see, we love our government, and we pray for it every day, and we love our congregation. And we want to do the right thing, so we’re going to abide by her rules and have our services, too.”
I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to sit in a crowded building, but I also wondered, is a crowded parking lot much safer? The question has been posed in communities across the country where churches have proposed drive-in worship for Easter. According to some public health professionals, restricting people to closely packed cars is not a panacea for avoiding the spread of the coronavirus. In many places, though, church leaders have reached an accommodation with government officials, giving assurances that cars would be placed six feet apart and that people remain in their vehicles.
Sunday morning, I showed up for the 8:45 service with gloves, mask and plenty of hand sanitizer. Apparently, I was the only one to feel the need for protective gear. The lot filled quickly and soon a band began to play loud, pulsing Christian rock music that drew people out of their cars. Others popped their heads through open sunroofs to wave their arms and shout affirmations of their faith. Tears streamed down the faces of some.
Emotions were running high when pastor Shropshire began to preach. Bible verses flashed on a giant screen as he articulated a vision of evangelical Christianity that calls for absolute faith and adherence to the literal word of scripture. “Believe what you read in this book!” he thundered. “Not what you see with your eyes. That is faith.”
He added: “We actually believe that you do not have to put a mask over your face to protect yourself against a germ.”