California Showdown: Fresno Church Prevails Amid Pandemic, Heat, Wildfires
By Mark Butzow
Holding in-person church services has been an on-again, off-again proposition this summer for many California congregations with social distancing restrictions on large gatherings that were relaxed in June only to be reinstated five weeks later. And then came wildfire season, possibly the worst in the state’s history. It’s been quite a journey for Pastor Greg Kendall and his flock.
In mid-March, when everything shut down, Fresno’s First Church of God did, too. For two Sundays, they did nothing. The church wasn’t already streaming services on Facebook, Vimeo, YouTube, or other avenues, so it took a while to figure out how to adapt.
“Large churches were already livestreaming and we weren’t,” Kendall says. “We purchased a couple of cameras, and we’ll continue livestreaming going forward. On Palm Sunday, the worship team recorded seven or eight songs so we could play them as part of those first services.”
They chose to connect with members using the Zoom meeting platform and continued services that way until June, when California allowed in-person gatherings again.
“Some liked the Zoom setting,” he added. “It allowed a lot of time for interaction. The best part was the twenty minutes before the service and twenty minutes after the service.”
Safety was a priority for church leaders because Fresno’s First Church of God has a lot of older people. “They were upfront: ‘I won’t feel comfortable coming to an in-person service.’”
One of the state and county recommendations was to stop children’s classes, so Kendall’s church has not been offering anything for them, and that’s been a challenge.
“I don’t have any desire to be, or appear to be, kind of a rogue,” Kendall said, unlike some other well-publicized examples in California. “There’s a mentality among some people that we’re being persecuted. I really disagree with that mentality.”
“Honestly, I think we’ve lost some people. Any decision we’ve had to make since March is weighing alternatives. We’re eliminating somebody, whatever decision or change.”
The June reopening didn’t last long. The church was able to meet in person for just five Sundays before the number of COVID-19 cases spiked and the county put its ban on large gatherings back in place again. And then, wildfires were added to the equation.
“Every year from late summer through the fall is wildfire season,” Kendall said. “And it’s getting worse each year.”
Fresno is located about thirty miles west of the Sierra National Forest, and the winds easily blow smoke and other particulates from forest fires that far. The worst effects were felt in early September, causing the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District to issue a health caution because the Creek Fire, located in Fresno and Madera counties, was producing smoke that was infiltrating into the San Joaquin Valley. The District warned residents to stay indoors to reduce their exposure to particulate matter emissions.
“The weather reports on TV put an air quality index in the forecast for sensitive people,” Kendall says. “My wife and I go out for morning walks, and it smells like smoke. I may very well be damaging my lungs, but I don’t feel short of breath or wheezing or coughing.”
Kendall says the church used that period of time to give the church sanctuary a makeover, with hopes that it soon could be filled again with people.
“This has been a wake-up call to remind us that maybe the most important thing we have to offer is community,” the pastor says. “You really feel what you’ve lost—no hugs, no handshakes, touching, seeing one another. It may be more important for small churches. The community aspect was taken away from us, and that’s why we were left scrambling.”
But things started looking brighter as Greg Kendall looked skyward one evening. Around Labor Day, children’s director Lesley Malone-Givens organized a family movie night, which was held outdoors in a grassy courtyard surrounded on three sides by church buildings. On tap was the new live-action The Lion King movie.
“We were sitting there in lawn chairs, under the stars, and I said to Becky [his wife], ‘This would be a perfect setting for doing outdoor church.’”
Under the stars is one thing; Sunday morning under the sun is quite another.
“In central California, in the middle of summer, it’s awfully hot—say 104, 105,” he said. “In a dry climate, if you’re in direct sun, the temp goes up, but in shade, temps are more bearable.”
Three weeks later, First Church had it “made in the shade.” Kendall and his team held their first worship service at the church in a while—outdoors, but out of the sun’s direct light. The church’s maintenance man, Daniel Lopez, whom Kendall dubs “a graduate of the Hogwarts school of construction and engineering,” had risen to the challenge and designed a safe, sturdy, and shady canopy to keep worshippers protected from the sun.
They chose October 4 to debut the canopy, and a group of church members teamed up on the previous Thursday to put Lopez’s design to the test. With metal poles forming a framework and guide wires attached to the buildings, they “hoisted the sails,” so to speak, creating a durable covering with blue fiberglass tarps over the grassy area.
“I was actually very emotional Sunday morning, almost overcome even, to see people face-to-face again,” Pastor Greg said. “Really positive emotion. It was really great.”
About 80 to 90 people were there that Sunday; Kendall says attendance pre-pandemic was usually about 125.
The restrictions on large gatherings were lifted just before that October 4 service, but First Church of God stuck with their plan to meet outdoors. Kendall said on October 22 that the church has continued outdoor services and will do so “until the rains come,” explaining the area gets “no rain here, literally, from May through October.”
“We will move back inside, with the appropriate restrictions in place, but until we have to, I think our people would prefer to be outside.”
Mark Butzow operates Mark My Words Ink, a freelance writing and editing service, and is a former journalism instructor, broadcast journalist, newspaper reporter and copy editor. He lives near Anderson, Indiana, with his wife, an elementary school teacher.
Learn more about the response of Church of God Ministries to the coronavirus (COVID-19), including resources for you and your church, at www.jesusisthesubject.org/theway.