Honking hallelujah: Drive-in theatre in Pa. becomes church during coronavirus shutdown

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A parishioner during Bethany Wesleyan Church's Sunday worship service at Becky's Drive-In in Walnutport, Pennsylvania. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

A parishioner during Bethany Wesleyan Church's Sunday worship service at Becky's Drive-In in Walnutport, Pennsylvania. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

By shortly after 10 a.m. Sunday morning, the line of cars waiting to get into Becky’s Drive-in Movie Theater snaked half a mile down the road.

The drivers weren’t there for a movie: They came for Bethany Wesleyan’s Sunday service. The church’s building is just two miles away, but, like most other public places, it’s currently shuttered to fight the spread of the new coronavirus.

At the drive-in, volunteers in yellow safety vests held signs for the incoming traffic. “Please stay in your vehicle,” one read, a necessity as Pennsylvanians try to keep their distance from each other. 

But most signs were upbeat. “Smile, it’s Sunday!” Or, simply: “We’re glad you are here!” 

The congregation was glad to be there, too. More than 1,000 people came — drawn by their faith and the possibility of being, if not together, at least near friends and family they don’t share a home with for a few hours. 

“We were made for community,” said administrative pastor Dwight Addington. “We were made for a community with God and with others as well. So this gives that kind of an opportunity, while at the same time being as safe as we possibly can.”

Pastor Dwight Addington holds a sign while parishioners arrive as Bethany Wesleyan Church holds Sunday worship service at Becky’s Drive-In in Northampton County. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

In-person community is in short supply right now. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has ordered all “non-life-sustaining” businesses closed, and is strongly discouraging any gatherings. On Sunday, Philadelphia officials announced a new “stay-at -home” order banning all public and private gatherings entirely. 

At Becky’s, northwest of Bethlehem and Nazareth in Northampton County, the concession stand and restrooms were closed. Worshippers were told not to get out of their cars.

So, friends shouted back and forth through half cracked windows — rows of vehicles beneath an Appalachian mountain range.

It may not have been the same as sitting together in a church pew, but the camaraderie went a long way. 

“This is … feeding the loneliness,” said Doris Zellers, a retiree from Palmerton. “We are seeing people, and we are able to wave, and just be social.” 

Melissa Schwoyer, a stay-at-home mom from Lehighton, agreed.

“This is the closest thing we have to community right now, is this church,” she said.

Schwoyer, like many people in attendance, caravanned with her friends and family. In the next car over was Staci Wolfe, a remedial reading and math teacher who is spending her days with her college age-daughter — both forced out of school by the coronavirus-related shutdowns. Wolfe’s husband works in auto repair, a business state officials have allowed to keep operating.

“We just keep praying that keeps occurring,” she said, grateful for the income. 

In the next car in the row sat Taylor Schwoyer, Melissa’s daughter. She’s finally coming up for breath after a week of long days at a local grocery warehouse.

“Right now, we are really big on our beans and grains and stuff,” she said, “because people are going crazy.”

‘Community thing’

Congregations from Texas to Wisconsin have turned to drive-in theaters in recent weeks as the pandemic has forced church leaders to rethink traditional worship service. 

The idea isn’t exactly new. Televangelist Robert Schuller, famous for his “Hour of Power” television program, got his start preaching from the top of the concession stand at a drive-in movie theater in the 1950s

The church’s motto: “Come as you are in the family car.” 

Dean Deppe, who along with his wife Cindy manages the drive-in, said they were providing the space to Bethany Wesleyan and another local church free of charge. The decision was an easy one: Their season, scheduled to start in April, has been upended by COVID-19. 

“[The film industry] has moved their releases back or canceled them for this year, so it would be a moot point to open,” he said. 

Deppe says the worship service is a good fit for the drive-in. Both, he said, are designed to make people feel connected. 

“You don’t come here to be alone,” Deppe said. “When you watch a movie, it’s a community thing.”

Becky’s Drive-In operators Dean and Cindy Deppe are allowing two area churches to use their space for free during the statewide coronavirus shutdown. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

When Bethany Wesleyan’s praise band started, the congregation mostly kept their car windows up — listening by turning their radio dials to the in-house frequency instead. 

Lead pastor Kevin Fetterhoff asked his worshippers to look to scripture to get through these uncertain times. 

“When Jesus was in his pandemic, if you will, his quarantine, if you will,” Fetterhoff said, referencing the Christian son of God’s forty days in the desert, “he determined in the depths of himself that he would not sell out for the goals and the dreams and the aspirations he had because he knew the forty days would come to the end.” 

The sermon reverberated from hundreds of idling cars, which used their horns as a makeshift “amen.” 

Bethany Wesleyan is planning to continue with the drive-in service for as long as they can, and many in the congregation said they planned to return next weekend. 

They may have to be alone. But at least here they can be alone, together.

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