Virus changes Sumter churches' Christmas plans


The Christmas spirit was on full display last week at Bethesda Church of God. It may not have been the most pleasing sight to the eyes, but it definitely celebrated Christmas.

Bethesda had Ugly Christmas Sweater Day, for which Pastor Al Sims asked members of his congregation to wear their most gaudy Christmas attire to the church's two worship services on the Sunday before Christmas.

"There's so much that we had to discontinue (for Christmas) that we wanted to do something to create a little fun," Sims said. "It's way out of the box for me to preach in an old, ugly sweater. My wife (Jackie) didn't believe I'd actually wear it. I wanted us to get our minds off of the bad things for a little bit, all of the bad things that happened."

Of course, most of the bad that Sims referenced has come from the coronavirus pandemic that hit the country in March and has spiked to new highs in recent weeks. The pandemic has affected the way local churches have worshipped this Christmas.

Bethesda normally has a Christmas production featuring a drama with music from its choir with two different events. That was canceled, as was a drive-through production when positive cases began to rise locally and across the state. That also forced the cancellation of the church's Christmas party.

Zoar Church, which is in southeastern Sumter County off U.S. 521, is a church that normally has between 75 and 90 in its congregation each Sunday in a sanctuary that seats 130.

Zoar has been having in-house services since returning from its March shutdown in June. It has postponed its annual Christmas cantata, but it has been having its regular morning worship services.

"We are encouraging everyone to wear masks, encouraging everyone to social distance, but we're still having church," said Pastor Allen Johnson, a longtime educator and coach. "We have continued to serve. God's really been good to us."

Zoar had a candlelight service on Wednesday, during which communion was served. It also had Santa Claus in for a quick visit as he prepared to go on his rounds.

"No one will be sitting on his knee," Johnson said. "Everyone will be at a distance sitting in another chair."

Jehovah Missionary Baptist Church has yet to return to in-house services after stopping them in March. It has been holding a drive-in service on Sunday mornings in a lot on its campus along with having virtual services on YouTube and Facebook.

The Rev. Marion Newton estimated there would be between 135 and 150 cars at the services.

"I've told my congregation that I didn't ever think it would ever get to the point to counting cars in the lot," Newton said with a laugh. "Look how many cars we have in the lot."

Jehovah normally partners with Westminster Presbyterian Church and Church of the Holy Comforter to have a Christmas dinner for the homeless and needy in the community. That dinner isn't taking place this year, but Jehovah still has plenty going on to celebrate Christmas.

The church has helped Emmanuel Soup Kitchen on Manning Avenue by donating food. It shared in a virtual service on Christmas Eve with Eagle River Missionary Baptist Church, which is located in Anchorage, Alaska.

It normally has an in-house service on Christmas morning. It wasn't in the sanctuary this year, but there was a drive-in service at 11 a.m.

A message of hope in the season of pandemic

Each of the pastors said one thing he has tried to share in this season is the blessings that have been bestowed upon them by God even through the pandemic.

"When I've tried to talk to folks, one of my points of emphasis is to look at how God has sustained us through a time where nobody actually knows the road map," Sims said. "God has helped us, guided us through one of the toughest times America's been through in our history.

"I've had people talk about they would not make it, whatever the situation, but God opened this door. They didn't know how their business would survive, but it did. I've tried to make sure that we look at the blessings we've had."

COVID-19 has disproportionately had a greater effect on the African-American community because they historically have more underlying health conditions and often work essential and public-facing jobs. Newton has seen it touch his congregation in many ways.

"It has affected people mentally, physically, spiritually, financially," he said.

Jehovah has its House of Hope, where it hands out food to the needy twice a week with help from Harvest Hope Food Bank, Walmart and Bi-Lo. Newton said the lines are longer now than they were before the pandemic began.

Still, Newton offers a resounding message to people in this season.

"The message is of hope," he said. "I think if there's ever been a time when people need hope, it's 2020. With the pandemic, violence, racial issues, a lot of people have lost hope. I want people to hold on to hope beyond the situation we're in now.

"I'm trying to encourage people to keep their faith, hold on to their faith. We do this by believing in God and that things are going to get better."

While celebrating the birth of Christ is of the utmost importance, it is just the first part of the gift God gave to mankind.

"It's been a difficult year, and a lot of people say we're in the last days," Johnson said. "I don't know if that's true, but I do know this, that the message never changes. We celebrate the birth of Christ, we celebrate him as the Son of God, the Virgin birth, all of that. We have to think of His death. We have to think of His resurrection. And in doing so, He gives us the opportunity for everlasting life. That is what Christmas is all about."