Tuesday I attended the most peculiar religious service I’ve ever observed. No hugging, kissing or touching at all. No Eucharist.
It was outdoors, in the heart of downtown Salem. Congregants listened to the sermon over their car radios, like patrons at a drive-in movie. Meanwhile, gloved-and-masked restaurant workers scurried car to car across a parking lot, taking orders and rushing take-out lunches to the faithful and hungry.
A three-person choir belted out hymns. Each time they wrapped one up, or the preacher uttered “Amen,” a chorus of honking horns burst into the air.
Near its conclusion, a deacon in a polka-dotted face mask accepted donations from drivers, who deposited them into an overturned cowboy hat. All the proceeds of the collection — nearly $1,000 — went to workers at Mac and Bob’s Restaurant.
Welcome to the Traveling Church of the Pandemic. That’s my term, not Pastor Tom McCracken’s. He founded the event as an outreach of CommUNITY Church, the 350-member Southern Baptist congregation he launched in 2005 with a handful of worshipers in his living room.
Tuesday at lunchtime was the second such service CommUNITY Church has sponsored outside a locally owned eatery. For those, McCracken uses a portable loudspeaker system, coupled with a short-distance transmitter. That way, car-bound attendees who prefer to keep their windows up can tune in over their FM radios.
“We had 62 cars. Most had two people in them,” McCracken told me. One of the purposes “is to inject some sort of financial resources into these struggling restaurants. We can do a lot more than sit home and lament that they’re hurting.”
The first service was last Thursday at dinnertime outside Mamma Maria’s, an Italian restaurant on West Main Street near Wildwood Road. The next is Saturday, May 9, at noon, outside Chip & Jo’s Restaurant on Eighth Street in Salem.
Its owner, Chip Shearer told me he’d be grateful for an upswing because business “has been rough, it’s been really rough.” He’s cut his normal staff size from eight to four.
The Tuesday service happened after McCracken invited Bob Rotanz — one of Mac and Bob’s owners — to the service outside Mamma Maria’s. There, roughly 40 cars gathered and the collection produced about $800 on top of what patrons paid for meals or in tips.
It impressed Rotanz, so he invited the church to Mac and Bob’s, where he was impressed again.
“I really enjoyed it,” he said. “Instead of me going from table to table in the dining rooms, I was going from car to car in the parking lot.” His NFL teams face mask kept fogging up his eyeglasses as he spoke.
Like many restaurants that suddenly entered the take-out-only realm last month, Mac and Bob’s is operating on reduced staff and revenue. On April 21, just one week earlier, its sales for the day totaled $3,073, Rotanz said.
Tuesday, sales jumped to $4,193, not counting the end-of-service collection. That’s a 33 percent increase, which Rotanz attributed to CommUNITY Church’s lunchtime presence.
McCracken, who’s been preaching for 25 years, said roughly 70 percent of congregants at the restaurant services have been members of CommUNITY Church, which occupies a large building at 1923 East Main St in Salem.
One I spoke to was Sylvia Lamb, who joined the church last August. Though she missed the first service at Mamma Maria’s, she didn’t let a few spits of rain Tuesday keep her inside at home.
Two other observers were sisters, Dianne E. Jones and Gayle Ingles. They live in Roanoke County and attend a different church, Fellowship Community Church on Red Lane.
“We’re friends of all the singers” in the choir, The CommUNITY Three, Jones told me.
Besides helping spur revenue for local business, McCracken told me the services help educate the public that “there are things we can do, in our cars, and stay safe.”
“I’m trying to give people an opportunity to actually do something, despite the social restrictions, and to do something good for someone else,” he added. “I think it’s a win-win.”
Naturally, during the sermon McCracken also talked about Jesus and his followers.
“The average Christian,” he said, “attends church two times per month. Twenty-five percent give nothing as an offering. Thirty-six percent give less than 2% of their income. Ninety-seven percent of Christians never share the good news of Jesus Christ.”
With the pandemic, “God is calling us to be different,” McCracken added. “This virus has flipped the world upside down. We can no longer be that 97% majority … We have a decision to make: Will we give up, or will we go on?”
He concluded it this way: “Father, my heart is overwhelmed as I look out and see an entirely full parking lot today … in the name of Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen!”
As The CommUNITY Three launched into a rendition of “I Saw the Light,” the honking of the horns began.