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Sonoma County church services move to the parking lot

For the first time in weeks, the Sunday morning silence was torn by the devotions of approved church services. It wasn’t the peals of bells that summoned the spirit, though, not with indoor public gatherings still prohibited by Sonoma County’s stay-at-home order. It was a chorus of car horns.

“Come on, make some noise!” a young woman called from a stage erected outside Victory Outreach Santa Rosa as fellow congregants around her waved colored flags, sang into microphones and provided backup percussion to kick off the 11 a.m. service.

And the flock obliged, leaning on their horns from appropriately spaced vehicles in the sprawling gravel parking lot of the Sebastopol Road church.

It was another sign of the county’s reemergence from a vast social and economic hibernation, and perhaps a harbinger of bigger changes - though they might not come without some political wrangling.

The church experience has been one more casualty of the coronavirus pandemic, which sent many worship services online when Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase imposed shelter-in-place restrictions March 18. Most services remained virtual Sunday, despite Mase’s decision, announced Friday, to allow drive-in services.

A few, though, hustled to host their parishioners Sunday. One was Victory Outreach church. Another, just a couple miles away, was Stony Point Christian Fellowship. Whereas Victory Outreach projected the word with a phalanx of speakers aimed at the cars, Stony Point Christian took a different approach - attendees were encouraged to tune to 95.1 FM to hear the gospel.

The makeshift pulpit outside the church on Stony Point Road bore a sign that read: “WE REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY MISSED YOU.”

The feeling, apparently, was mutual. The church parking lot was mostly full for the 10:15 service, with 30 to 40 vehicles backed into spaces for a better view of the proceedings. When the service ended, the congregants made a slow procession out of the lot, serenaded by hymns. One young couple, sitting on camp chairs in the bed of a lifted Chevy Longhorn pickup truck, waved at fellow worshipers as they left.

It’s clear that regular churchgoers are starved for spiritual communion.

“This is something that helps people get through the week,” said Mike Hernandez, guest services director at Victory Outreach Santa Rosa. “When they come to a place like this, they get hope, they get inspiration, they get motivation. When that’s lacking, you see all these other things that go up. You know, depression goes up, alcoholism goes up, abuse goes up.”

He and his wife, Victoria, met at Victory Outreach a decade ago. Both graduated from the church’s recovery program and are heavily involved in the worship there.

The ability to meet, even in a parking lot, provides something they weren’t getting from online services.

“Sometimes when you’re watching online, you’re in your own living room, so there’s that sense of loneliness,” Victoria Hernandez said. “And it does feel like there’s a barrier between you and the TV screen.”

Her church was more ardent than most about opening up. Victory Outreach has been hosting the drive-up services for several weeks, skirting Mase’s directive.

Church sanctuaries have become a fierce battleground in the debate over reopening America. Last week, an attorney who represents a church in Lodi said more than 1,200 California pastors have signed a “declaration of essentiality,” signaling their intent to open doors to worshipers next Sunday, without or without the permission of Gov. Gavin Newsom.

A group of other churches sued Newsom over his temporary ban, calling it an unconstitutional abridgment of religious freedom. Friday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the governor in a split ruling.

President Donald Trump weighed in Friday, labeling houses of worship essential and calling on governors across the United States to allow them to reopen. Trump threatened to “override” governors who defy him. His authority in this area is unclear.

Even some of those who agree church services are essential don’t believe they can be conducted safely right now. At least nine cases of coronavirus have been linked to an outbreak at Redwood Valley Assembly of God in Mendocino County, where a sick parishioner passed it along to others during a live-streamed service at the church.

Newsom has recently hinted that churches, synagogues and mosques will reopen in the next few weeks.

Mike Hernandez said that when the Victory Outreach sanctuary opens, families will be able to sit together, but there will be 6 feet of separation between groups. The church will provide hand sanitizer, and only one person at a time will be allowed into restrooms.

“We don’t want anybody to get sick,” Victory Outreach pastor Jose Guadarrama said during his sermon. “I don’t want to get sick. Come on, now. We know God has the ability to heal people. But don’t get stupid.”

For now, many congregants seem to believe drive-up religion is better than no religion at all. The mood was elevated at Victory Outreach on Sunday, with people filming the service on their phones, and arms lifted in praise from driver’s-side windows.

Little kids bounced around minivan seats rather than church pews.

“I’d imagine, since I’m like a 1950s housewife at heart, that this is what it was like going and being entertained back then,” said Meg Reyes, who watched the Victory Outreach service from her red Volkswagen GTI, along with her father, Fred Gayhart. “So we get to be entertained by Jesus.”

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