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Easter at a distance

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Easter at a distance

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From left, pastors Tom Johnson, Bill Nichols and Joe Langford take in the sunrise before Sunday’s interdenominational service.

Sitting at a microphone, Bolivar First Christian Church pastor Bill Nichols declares, “Amen.”

It could be any given Sunday, but Nichols’ congregation isn’t packed into a sanctuary. 

They’re in their cars on the other side of the Historic Bolivar Speedway outfield, listening to his sermon via radio broadcast.

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Bolivar First Christian Church is one of many churches celebrating Easter in a new way. Attendees gather in their parking lot, staying in their cars while the service is broadcast.

Parishioners respond to Nichols’ amen with their own declarations — honked horns and flashing brake lights.

On Easter Sunday, April 12, in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, Polk Countians of faith still found a way to celebrate Christ’s resurrection, with Alliance Christian Fellowship, Bolivar Family Church, First Assembly of God, First Baptist Church, First Christian Church, Hebron Christian Fellowship, Open Hearts United Methodist Church, Sling N Stones Ministry and The Heights Church sponsoring an inaugural interdenominational sunrise service at the speedway. 

Officials from each church came together in the speedway’s pressbox to deliver the message, complete with prayers and worship music. 

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A pup celebrates the season from a vehicle window at The Hill Church of Bolivar’s drive-thru Easter basket event

A unified service had been a long-term goal of the group, who meet together regularly, Nichols says. 

“I thought it was great,” Nichols says. “We were expecting 30 or 40 cars. We probably had 100 cars. I don't think that we’d have had this turnout had it not been for COVID.”

At a time when in-person church services have almost all been canceled, Nichols said congregations are seeking a chance to commune with others more than ever. 

Parishioners parked 6 feet apart in the speedway’s outfield. With the sun rising through the rain clouds overhead, Nichols says he hopes parishioners found that connection restored. 

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Rob Ross of Bolivar drives the Easter bunny on an impromptu parade down South Hartford Avenue on Friday, April 10.

Many churches have either begun or enhanced online broadcasts of sermons, but it isn’t the same, First United Methodist Church pastor David Collum says.

“I think (the Easter service) went well, and I think people will be back,” he says. “I woke up excited for it and excited to wear something other than sweatpants because I had somewhere to go for the Lord today.”

Meanwhile, locals have been adapting to life without in-person services. 

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Angel Taylor, right, prepares to load a bag of Easter items into a vehicle at The Hill Church of Bolivar’s drive-thru Easter basket event. 

One churchgoer, Whitney Johnson, says she’s now been watching services online. 

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Volunteer Kristi Clark grins while loading a bag of Easter goodies into a vehicle. 

It’s been a unique experience, she says, watching other believers worship in their own homes.

“But, I am excited for the day we all meet again,” she says.

Meanwhile, Tanya Hatton says she’s been taking the opportunity to watch broadcasts from new churches with her family. It’s been interesting, she says, even if they can’t all agree to watch the same one.

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First United Methodist Church of Bolivar pastor David Collum films the service on his phone.

“Still, I miss that connection of all being together in the same place,” she says.

Hannah Holfinger says her family has struggled with that feeling of connection and staying engaged with a worship service while watching online. 

Her grandfather has pulled out his newspaper during an online service, and her grandmother once started scrapbooking during the sermon, she says.

“Plus, being on the internet has its own distractions,” she adds. 

For Mandi Hiett, an old adage may need a new disclaimer after in-person services one day resume.

“We always say that the church isn’t the building,” she says. “It’s the people. But, there is something really special about us all coming together in the same place.”

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Vehicles enter the gates at the Historic Bolivar Speedway around 6 a.m. Sunday, April 12, for an interdenominational Easter service. 

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