The Gospel outdoors – and elsewhere

By Frances Stebbins


This is a memory from the six decades the author has spent writing about faith communities in daily, weekly, and monthly news publications covering the western third of Virginia.

As this summer of anxiety, anger and uncertainty races – or drags – on, church leaders have found many ways to bring their congregations together. I, being a believer who has come to perceive my Higher Power in many belief systems, have found outdoor worship more satisfactory than the technology others have embraced.

One exception is the music available online in some gatherings. Covenant Presbyterian Church in Southwest Roanoke County uses this with especially good effect. Home of the Steel Drums Band directed by Richard Rudolph, musicians have made it easy to enjoy worship this way. Others like Central United Methodist of Salem provide a Hymn Sing each Wednesday night. Listeners select favorite spiritual songs, old and newer.

And Sunday morning outdoor services, despite the recent July heat, have for me offered education as well as inspiration. From their newsletters, I have learned that a number of congregations are moving to their parking lots for informal worship in which all ages can join. A slightly earlier time such as 9 a.m. has brought out the “night people” like me who try to do nothing before 10.

One Sunday in June such a service was held at College Lutheran Church in Salem when a young girl in foster care had asked to be baptized. That morning, still cool and threatening showers, we sat in our cars with windows lowered as the Rev. David Drebes performed the ritual by pouring water from a pitcher on the candidate’s head. Several from the choir shared an anthem, and Drebes gave a message though without the usual Holy Communion.

Enough folk liked the service that something similar will be continued, weather permitting, until Labor Day. Now a way to receive the Sacrament also has been worked out. Staying in cars requires coming early enough to find a good spot, but the service is also carried on the car radio as backup.

Salem’s two Disciples of Christ congregations, First on Front Avenue and Fort Lewis in Glenvar, have found informal parking lot morning worship especially meaningful. I have visited both by carrying a folding chair and enjoying the fellowship while sitting in the shade of part of the building. At Fort Lewis Christian (Disciples of Christ) a call in advance assured me a parking place which has been numbered for visitors. Again, trees that line the adjacent creek offered enough shade as the Rev. Ben Moore spoke.

Fort Lewis Christian recalls for me the many times I gave blood there for an American Red Cross drive, and also the necessary elevation of the new worship center after the memorable Flood of 1985 nearly destroyed the small earlier building.

  • Outdoor worship services are hardly new even though COVID-19 is a novel experience. I’ve written previously of the joint summer neighborhood outdoor worship held in two sections of Roanoke City in the 1950s and ’60s. A dozen congregations serving the Southwest quadrant would gather around 7 p.m. in Highland Park; the speaker and choir would be announced in the Saturday afternoon daily newspaper where I compiled material about – mostly white Protestant – events. Over on the north side of the city, where late husband Charlie and I found a new parish of our faith, another group of congregations met on Sunday evenings on various lawns. Such services died away a half century ago about the time the religious culture of the Roanoke Valley became more diverse.
  • Up near Fincastle members of the Roman Catholic Church of the Transfiguration are marking 30 years in the rose-colored building on U.S. 220 just south of the courthouse town. They are in the process of raising $20,000 to erect a stone wall sign identifying the contemporary-style structure as Roman Catholic; the campaign utilizes a Bible verse “…and there shall be a sign.”
  • Over the past three decades, I wrote several stories about the opening of Roman Catholic congregations in Botetourt and Craig Counties. An Irish nun, Sister Evaline Murray, is remembered by many for her assistance to the late Bishop Walter F. Sullivan in spreading the faith to the development of the rural areas.
  • Finally, a newsletter reveals that a contemporary liturgical composer from the Island of Iona off the coast of Scotland, John Bell, has just written a new song relative to the COVID-19 pandemic. Entitled “We Will Meet,” it brings to me a happy memory of a spring day in 2007 when several members of the choir of my Salem church journeyed to Lynchburg to hear the spirited young man in distinctive red shoes perform at a retirement home. The words express hope in a time when we all need it.

more recommended stories