As families rethink their Thanksgiving plans amid the COVID-19 pandemic, so too have churches.
In accordance with public health guidelines, many congregations have shelved plans for churchwide meals and high-touch canned food drives.
For example, Melissa United Methodist Church in Texas had to modify its tradition of collecting canned foods for area food banks. While traditionally the church’s youth have gone door-to-door to collect donations, “we did not do a specific drive this year because of the risk of gathering people to collect items,” said Lead Pastor Stacey Piyakhun. “We have encouraged people to give consistently to the local food bank on an individual basis.”
At Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, some traditional Thanksgiving activities had to go and some had to be modified. For example, the church typically encourages members to collect items for Thanksgiving baskets that are delivered to the Wilkinson Center, a local missions partner. Although the drop-off process had to be modified, this year’s basket donations far exceeded expectations, with more than 140 baskets being delivered — almost double what the church had committed to provide, said Abbey Adcox, ministry assistant. The church’s canned food drive also had a strong response, Adcox said, although this year donations were dropped off at the church or bought online instead of being displayed on the chancel steps the Sunday morning before Thanksgiving.
“The missions response was tremendous, as everyone is eager to be of service,” Adcox said.
Other activities, though, had to be shelved. For example, volunteers from Wilshire usually serve a meal at a sister congregation, Cornerstone Baptist Church. While that meal still will be provided on a to-go basis rather than a sit-down lunch, there has been hesitation about participating due to the coronavirus surge in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. And the elegant fellowship meal Wilshire traditionally serves its own members after worship the Sunday before Thanksgiving had to be cancelled, too.
But even as old traditions have changed or been omitted this year, new ones have arisen. While the congregation isn’t meeting in the sanctuary for in-person worship, it has been meeting monthly in the church parking lot, with participants in masks and socially distanced. November’s “Church in the Lot” incorporated a theme of thanksgiving.
Across the country in Gulfport, Miss., Westminster Presbyterian Church is making adjustments, as well.
Traditionally, Westminster joins two other churches, Trinity United Methodist Church and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, in co-hosting an ecumenical Thanksgiving service and reception for the community. While the service isn’t canceled, it will necessarily be different — with no choir and no singing of any kind, capacity limited to 50% and all participants encouraged to wear masks, Pastor Will Shurley said.
Because of the smaller, more low-key gathering, “this is the first year we haven’t worked hard to drum up attendance,” Shurley said.
While these measures are necessary to protect public health, Shurley expressed a sense of grief at what is lost: having people in masks “does, in some way, remove a bit of the warm familiarity of such a unifying service of worship,” he said. And without a reception after the service, there will be limited time to visit with one another, Shurley added — “yet another blow to long-standing tradition.”
Besides co-hosting the church service, Westminster Presbyterian also works with Feed my Sheep, one of the largest soup kitchens in Mississippi. Due to the particular vulnerabilities of the homeless population and the volunteers who serve them, the soup kitchen has had to close its dining room — meaning the meal it serves on the day before Thanksgiving will be offered to-go, rather than as a formal sit-down meal.
That, too, is a loss, Shurley said. “This year’s Thanksgiving meal, itself, will still be quite good; however, there will be something missing in the fact that it cannot be safely enjoyed communally inside our facility.”
Meadowbrook Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, also made adjustments to its usual fall activities.
“During this season, we dedicate shoeboxes that church members fill during the month of October for Operation Christmas Child,” said Amy Castello, family and missions pastor.
“We give these small gifts to children in need all around the world and the gift of them hearing the good news of Jesus Christ,” Castello said. This year, Meadowbrook encouraged people to buy the items for the shoeboxes online.
“We pushed this method due to people not wanting to go around and shop for items for their boxes,” she said, adding that people filled boxes both online and the traditional way.
Throughout COVID, Castello said, Meadowbrook has emphasized the message of Philippians 2:4, which encourages followers to put the interests of others above their own: “We are also encouraging one another to ‘give thanks in all circumstances.’”
Piyakhun, the pastor in Melissa, Texas, echoed that sentiment, saying that even though the entire congregation can’t gather in person, the spirit of the season endures.
“Our priority at Thanksgiving and throughout COVID is relationships,” she said. “While we miss doing things in person, we are able to offer limited in-person gatherings, and we stay connected through cards and phone calls.”