Chris Wood has grown tired of Zoom and Google Hangouts.
He knows full-well the value of the online platforms in keeping people connected during the stay-at-home phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, but as Youth Minister of St. John the Baptist Parish in New Freedom, he’s ready to bring teens back to the parish in new and enjoyable ways this summer.
For the first gathering, he turned to praise and worship music and a movie, under the stars.
As twilight settled over the parish grounds on a recent Saturday night, Father Benjamin Dunkelberger, parochial vicar, offered a reflection and Wood led a group of some 40 participants in worship music and song.
Then, the teens and their families spread out blankets, unpacked their snacks and drinks, and settled in for a showing of The Princess Bride on a movie projector.
Just like that, youth ministry was back together, in person, at St. John the Baptist Parish.
“If teens spend a couple months or half a year outside of the Church, they might never come back. We might lose them if we don’t find a way to bring them in. We have to keep young people – and even adults – engaged in the life of the Church and the parish,” Wood said.
“When we went into the yellow phase, I realized we had an opportunity to get things going again,” he said. “Weeks and weeks off from your ministry can crumble it, especially with young people. Everything is so fast and instant these days, if kids don’t do something for three months, it’s out of their routine.”
The outdoor event was met with such ease and positive reception that the parish already has additional events on the schedule. These include a youth ministry bike ride on a local rail trail followed by an ice cream social, a parish-wide outdoor Holy Hour, and a parish festival with food trucks and outdoor Bingo.
“We want to get people back together and excited again. We need to get people’s spirits back up,” Wood said. “It’s the same for teens and adults. We need to get fired up to be together as a family. We have to get filled with the Holy Spirit again, and we can do that with music and fun, together as a parish family in the presence of God’s Creation.”
The sentiment is echoing throughout parishes in the Diocese as they imagine new – and often simple – ways of hosting social events while maintaining safety guidelines.
On Father’s Day, St. Patrick Parish in Carlisle celebrated the start of summer with its inaugural food truck festival.
The three-hour event, held in the parish center parking lot, featured five food trucks. The event was so successful that the vendors sold out – including more than 600 milkshakes from the Farm Show Milkshake Truck.
“We went into it wondering what the weather would be like, if it would be well received, if vendors would even be working because it was Father’s Day and a Sunday. It turned out to be a beautiful day. People came from all over. They arrived at various times and stood apart as they waited in line. Then they found places to sit and eat. It was a successful day, and a safe day,” said George Ehgartner, Parish Manager.
The event was so successful, St. Patrick’s is planning another food truck event on Thursday July 23.
“We wanted to get people out of their houses, have them come to a place they’re familiar with, see people they haven’t seen in a while, and enjoy an afternoon outdoors,” Ehgartner said.
“Our pastor, Father [Donald] Bender, views his parish as his family. He realizes that we need to see each other outside of Mass, and the safety of parishioners was top priority. He wanted to come up with a nice event where people could come to the parish property and socialize while being safe,” he said.
Heidi Lynch, Pastoral Associate at St. Patrick’s, recognizes that for parishioners who don’t feel comfortable attending Mass inside the church, outdoor distanced activities might be their opportunity to connect to the parish during the pandemic.
“For a lot of people, their parish is their social life. When there aren’t activities available, people can feel a little down. Offering events and things for people to look forward to is important for us to do as a parish,” she said.
Becky Papa, Pastoral Assistant at Holy Infant Parish in Manchester, said social activities are an important part of parish ministry. That’s why the parish is getting ready to host three outdoor events in the next five weeks: a barbecue picnic, a food truck event and an evening of 50s music. (See the Diocesan Notebook section in this edition for event details.)
“These are all first-time events at our parish, and they’ll be held at the brand new pavilion on our parish grounds,” Papa said. “We’re trying to find things to do outside at the pavilion, and also get parishioners together to socialize in a safe way.”
“We have to offer things so that people keep coming to the parish and stay connected with other parishioners. We have to really take a look at how we do ministry, and socializing is part of that,” she said.
Planning a trio of events within the span of five weeks isn’t as daunting as it seems, Papa pointed out. Holding activities outdoors eases the burden of having to deep-clean facilities before and after indoor events.
At the upcoming barbecue and food truck events July 12 and 26, attendees can eat at the pavilion or take their food home. The 50s Rock and Roll Night on Aug. 8 was also an easy set-up, Papa said.
“It’s nothing that we really have to plan for with very much effort, because we don’t have to provide anything but the pavilion, our cornhole sets and a few trash cans,” she said. “The DJ for the 50s music is a parishioner and he was willing to volunteer, and we’re telling people to bring what they’ll need for seating and purchase their food from the truck.”
Ehgartner said it is possible for parishes to plan similar events without much burden, even if it means revamping festival plans or rethinking set-ups for parish picnics.
“We called food trucks to schedule them, advertised the event in our bulletin and on Facebook, figured out how to arrange the trucks and parking, and asked people to social distance. That was the extent of what the event required. Something like this is not hard to do,” he said.
Lynch concurred: “There really wasn’t much that we had to take on. We didn’t have to open up our facilities or clean. We just opened up our parish center parking lot and let the food truck vendors do their thing.”
With a small effort came great reward.
“It was wonderful to see so many parishioners and members of the community smiling, enjoying time together and happy to be out,” Lynch said.
Wood said he can’t stress enough how critical it is for parishes to offer social gatherings at this time.
“It’s so easy to do these events, and we have the benefit of summer weather,” he said. “It’s about trying to do everything we’ve normally done in a way that fits the guidelines.”
“It would be easy to do nothing, to just stop things and not have events, but that’s not an option,” he said. “We need to bring people back in. It can be as easy as setting up a movie projector outside.”
(Is your parish, school or ministry planning a public event this summer? E-mail your announcement to email@example.com so we can help spread the word.)
(Photos courtesy of parishes featured in the article.)