Park and abide

Park and abide

Northern Ireland faithful pray at drive-in service

Monday, May 25, 2020

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BUSHMILLS, United Kingdom (AFP) — In a windswept Northern Ireland car park a fleet of vehicles fan out in front of an improvised altar, on the bed of a potato truck, for the faithful to pray at a drive-in, coronavirus lockdown service.

Stewards from Dunseverick Baptist Church outside Bushmills, County Antrim, guided around 70 cars into regimented lines for the first Sunday service since the province relaxed its restrictions.

Families, couples and solitary attendees tuned their radios to an FM frequency, eager to once again hear the words of Pastor Billy Jones after a virus-enforced hiatus.

“As I preach today, the reality is I'm looking at number plates rather than faces,” Jones told AFP before taking to the wooden lectern engraved with the words “God is love”.

“What's the same is the expectation amongst people to meet with the Lord and to meet with one another.”

Northern Ireland has been under lockdown since 23 March and the death toll in the British territory stands at 506, according to department of health figures.

But the region's devolved Government on Monday began easing the lockdown, starting the slow crawl back to normality for its 1.8 million residents.

Small outdoor gatherings and some outdoor activities are now allowed, and crucially for the congregation at Dunseverick, drive-in events were included.

“They have been hard-won freedoms and it is vital that when you exercise those freedoms you do it in a way that does not put anybody else's safety at risk,” said Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster.

“We must proceed cautiously,” she warned.

In the church car park worshippers were forbidden from leaving their cars except in case of an emergency.

Most chose to spend the service, conducted from a royal blue truck advertising “finest quality potatoes”, with their windows rolled up.

But Jones — whose preaching is thick with charismatic gestures — pledged that his words would reach through the glass and metal.

“I am quite aware that within those cars there are adults and children as well, and the message doesn't change,” he said.

In a service peppered with hymns backed by a piano, Jones asked drivers to honk their horns in appreciation as he related the words of Christ.

Relating Bible passages to the ordeal of the lockdown, he attempted to give the event the same gravitas as a traditional service, normally held inside the nearby church's locked doors.

“Jesus promises, 'Where two or three are gathered in my name there am I in the midst,' “ he told the gathering.

“We today see how that same promise is related to us in this open car park where we are under the canopy of God's heaven.”

One worshipper sat in a full suit — taking Jones at his word that the service was as significant as any other act of Sunday worship.

“This will be my eleventh week inside — this is my first outing,” 70-year-old Marbeth Templeton told AFP from the driving seat of her vehicle.

She, like many others her age, has been “cocooning” to avoid contact with the coronavirus.

Despite sitting in her car alone, Templeton sighed with happiness at the sight of others parked around her.

“It's just lovely to see people all sitting about like this — I've been eager to come and sit under God's word.”

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