HENSLEY, Ark. (BP) – Over the next week, many Southern Baptist churches nationwide will participate in one of the most timeless of church traditions – sharing a Thanksgiving meal. But with the country in the grip of a once-in-a-century pandemic, many of these churches are changing their plans to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
East End Baptist Church in Hensley, Ark., altered its Thanksgiving meal process last year to help ensure everyone had time to eat together. The church dropped the long buffet line and traded it in for a horseshoe shape. Then the church released everyone to take a loop around the table and sit down together.
Despite the smooth operations of last year’s dinner, 2020 would require an even bigger change. With new COVID-19 infections above 100,000 per day nationwide throughout the past week, churches like East End are trying not to add to those numbers.
Pastor Doug Hibbard said this year they will space congregants throughout the church and only put six chairs around a table rather than eight. They’ll also dismiss people table by table to get their food, letting senior adults go first and then potentially playing a Bible trivia game to decide the remaining order.
“It’s important for us because we want to protect the health of our church members, because that’s not a risk we can take,” Hibbard said. “I see a lot of people citing this whole 99-percent survival rate. Yet still out of 100 people in the church, I still can’t name you which one I’d be willing to sacrifice.”
Hibbard said he also believes these precautions will help preserve the church’s community witness.
“I just can’t fathom how much it would damage the witness of the church if you went from low COVID spread to the source of 150 COVID infections in this community being 50 people at church who decided that they didn’t have to follow the law, they didn’t need to put on a mask or pay attention to what they were doing,” Hibbard said. “So we wanted to be a faithful witness and be a good neighbor in the community.”
This year East End is also moving the meal from after the morning worship service to the time of the church’s Sunday evening service. The church will provide a few of the dishes and is asking people to bring in additional food in covered dishes. Typically, Hibbard said, the church plans for about 100 to attend the meal. Organizers realize many seniors won’t attend this year, and the evening time slot will also affect attendance. Hibbard said they’re expecting about half the number of previous years.
Still, he said, it’s an important practice for the church – particularly this year.
“This is an opportunity to fellowship, to get to look people in the eye, and actually have a chance to have a conversation with them, which is not always something that you get on Sunday morning, especially with the hurry in and hurry out that morning worship has almost become with trying to follow the COVID guidelines,” Hibbard said. “We’re trying to provide opportunities for people to actually sit at a table and talk to each other.”
Other Southern Baptist churches around the country are hosting community meals to serve and engage their neighbors. Northview Church in Kodak, Tenn., hosted a community Thanksgiving meal last year to introduce the new church plant to the community.
“The community we’re in, the Smoky Mountain area, is tourism driven, mostly people working in the service industry, and hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions, things like that,” said Greg Rains, who started Northview Church in 2019. “We thought, a lot of these people need to work on Thanksgiving. At the time, we were meeting at a minor league baseball stadium in a restaurant. We thought it was a perfect place to have a meal. So, we did a community meal and had a great turnout. Over 100 people came.”
But this year, plans needed to change for two reasons – COVID-19 restrictions and a change in the church’s meeting location. Rains said the church still wanted to do the meal. With the impact of COVID-19 on the local tourism industry, the need would be even greater.
Instead of hosting a dinner, Rains said this year they would make take-out meals and allow people to take meals for their entire family. To be as safe as possible, only a specific group of volunteers will pack the meals. They’ll also follow all necessary distribution protocols.
“Obviously, we would love to have people come to our church as a result of this, but the purpose is just to love the people and to give them an opportunity to have Thanksgiving, a nice Thanksgiving meal with their family that they may not be able to do,” Rains said. “Most of the people in this lower income community are working on Thanksgiving Day, so it’s difficult for these families to do a full spread, especially this year. We just want them to know we love and care for them. There’re no strings attached to it.”
Crossroads Community Church in Newport, Tenn., is also planning to distribute Thanksgiving meals to the community and is taking special precautions because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The church hasn’t normally distributed Thanksgiving meals, but church leaders knew the need was particularly high this year.
“The original plan was to do a sit-down meal in the theater,” said Josh Gerber, the church’s associate pastor. “But with the numbers going up, we’ve moved to a drive-thru method. So Thanksgiving Day, we’ll have volunteers make the food, package it up, and [serve it to people as they drive in].”
Gerber said the church plans a similar outreach at Christmas to help caregivers in the community.
Throughout the year, Crossroads has been partnering with other local churches to provide meals for specific groups of people in the community. These churches paid local restaurants that had been shut down due to COVID-19 to help prepare meals for different groups. They have served nurses, doctors, schoolteachers, hotel workers, restaurant workers and others during the monthly meals. Last month, churches provided a meal for pastors as part of pastor appreciation month.
Crossroads will operate the Thanksgiving meal on its own.
“We hope that our community will see that we are the representative of Christ’s love, and we care for them,” Gerber said. “Even while there’s not much hope out there, even though people are discouraged, they can see we still love and care for them, that we’re there for the community. That’s why we exist – to be that witness.”
Gerber said they expect to feed around 100 people through the Thanksgiving outreach.