Open Air at Open Door

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By Peggy Bair

Parking Lot Sermon a Success

This is not the first pandemic the 104 year old church in Leavenworth has seen. At only two years old in 1918, Church of the Open Door in Leavenworth, KS, had to close for three weeks during the Spanish Flu pandemic – a fact uncovered by Associate Pastor and history sleuth, Andy Huber. Curious, he decided to take a look at the news of that era.

Because he knew Church of the Open Door was functioning during the 1918 flu pandemic, he decided to do some digging in some old newspaper archives. Although Church of the Open Door complied fully with the state of Kansas guidelines for the safety of its members, Huber thought it was fascinating to see what the effects of a pandemic and closings of gatherings had on people in Leavenworth in 1918.

The clip from the Saturday, Oct. 26, 1918 Leavenworth Times:

The October 26, 1918 article in The Leavenworth Times states –

“ANOTHER PASTOR FOR OPEN CHURCH”

Rev. J.D. Hunt, of Independent Baptist Church, Believes Prayer’s Sure Preventative of Disease

“Rev. James D. Hunt of the Independent Baptist Church (colored), is another Leavenworth pastor who is opposed to the closing of the churches during epidemics of disease and who believes that those who go to church to worship will be immune from disease. Writing to The Times, Rev. Mr. Hunt says:

If we hope to sin the war, and to encourage our boys who’re over the seas hid in the trenches, sleeping on the hills and behind mountains, preparing for this task in our home land training camps, they must go from here knowing that the churches are assembled each Sabbath with open doors, praying for their future victory. Other than this they will leave with sad hearts because the mass of or boys have Christian parents and are from Christian homes , and have great faith in their parents’ religious worship. Therefore it is the mission of the church to assemble together to do service for God and humanity. The only way we can serve God in this world, is to serve humanity. When this is done in faith and in truth, no one need to be afraid that he or she will catch any kind of a disease at the church doing good for the premise of God is stated in Mark 16:18-20.

In the days of Christ and His apostles the sick were brought to the assembled church for cure. (Read the following: Matt 0-2, Mark 2-3, Acts 5:15-16, Luke 17:12-19.)

Since those days the churches have not been disburbed with diseased folks. it is because the people are are so carnal and worldly minded. I believe and know if the churches would be permitted to do their duty as an assemble body for prayer and devotion, the ‘flu’ would cease spreading. James said the prayers for father shall save the sick (Read James 5:15-16.) It has been my experience for 13 years of parting, that sick folks do not go to church; they have long since been taught by medical science that homes and hospitals are the places for them and hence they stay away. Christ from all eternity meant for the doors of His church to stand open to the general public and there weasn’t any power or epidemic to close its doors as He was the only one who possessed that power. Isaiah 22-22, Rev. 3: 7-8. Secondly he declared that there wasn’t anything to prevail against His church. Matt 16-18. I am sure God will bless us if we just have faith in His word. We as Christians teach obedience to our Master and them that have the rule over us, but especially to our God. As we do not want to be charged by our heavenly father in the great reckoning day as not obeying His word, for we know that His bible will be against us. Act 5:20, Rom 8:35-39.

Jas. D. Hunt”

In an interesting juxtaposition, just below the article of protest were the following funeral notices of people who had died from the epidemic “Spanish influenza” and other notices of other residents who were ill with influenza (clearly before HIPPA.)

Funeral notices for people who died of the “Spanish influenza” were printed beneath a letter of protest from a local Leavenworth pastor in a October 26, 1918 edition. From newspaper archives.

…a continuation of funeral notice plus further personal – including medically personal – news about other residents, including residents who were sick with pnuemonia from the influenza.

In 2020, however, the elders at Church of the Open Door, took seriously the gathering restrictions set out by the state of Kansas as they began changing their services to protect their members and comply with the health department’s guidelines. The church members are very much a “church family” Pastor Damien Efta said in a recent interview with Heart KC – and the elders wanted to make sure they were taken care of especially during these times.

For the first couple of Sundays after the stay-at-home order, they offered previously audio-recorded sermons for their members. Then, they offered some video-shared services – until, last weekend, the elders had the idea to offer drive up service in their ample parking lot. This was the sixth Sunday since the Kansas health department issued their advisory against gatherings of more than 50 people.

“When it looked like they were going longer and longer, we decided we needed to do something in an alternative way,” said Pastor Efta. “It was kind of a week by week thing.”

The second two Sundays, they were recorded videos with some singing – that were then posted online.

“We certainly wanted to meet together but we didn’t want to do so as a sign of protest,” said Pastor Efta. “Protest isn’t our purpose. Worship is our purpose.”

“People are different in their opinions on the medical necessity of what’s going on. But that’s really a secondary question for us. The first question is being in subjection to the authorities over us – which the scripture tells us to do. So even if there are those who don’t agree with the medical necessity part of this, we still want to honor those who have to make those decisions. So, we tried to move slow.”

Fifty cars showed up.

This week, they held another outdoor drive up service. Rain that threatened in the skies early Sunday morning, May 3, cleared off just in time before the 10:15 am. service. Seventy cars had showed up.

Some members brought chairs, some sat in the backs of their pickup trucks or vans with the hatch open, some stayed in their cars and some just stood by their cars.

In the fields next to the church, the tall grass blades rippled below a soft breeze. Bright sunlight blanketed the faces of faithful friends and family.

Hymns called the group to worship. Heads bowed in prayer. There were young bright-eyed babies, a child hugging a stuffed toy, a mop-haired puppy on a leash and there were elderly couples. Some were young men with tucked in shirts and some were young women in dresses and high heel shoes. Others dressed more casually. One young girl brought her knitting. Many Bibles were in hands as were pen and paper to take notes from the sermon.

The voices harmonizing “Amazing Grace” seemed to be the thread that knit the group’s attention towards a raised platform serving as a podium. Pastor Efta offered a prayer. Then he guided the members to the book of Joel. Many members followed along in the program outline – designed with spaces to take notes from the sermon. One woman’s palm raised upward, highlighted by a sun that had burned away the earlier clouds, leaving an open blue sky.

After the sermon, members greeted each other from the six-foot social distancing or more as they talked and waved or motioned air-hugs. Even the children appeared to have been cautioned to stay a safe distance – as they played games of chase but took care to do so away from other children who were not their siblings.

There was no animosity in their faces – no angry dialogue. There was, instead, looks of gratitude and appreciation for being able to see other members of their church family in person – even if it meant not being able to hug.

“It went better than I thought it would go,” said Pastor Efta. “The people appreciated it. Things had relaxed enough (this week) that – as long as people kept their distance – people were at least able to get out of their cars and visit across the parking space with other friends.”

Pastor Efta said that with the restrictions lifted this next week, the elders are considering how they will move forward with a safe reopening of the church gatherings. He said these have not yet been determined but that their primary concern was for the health safety of their congregation members. “With the governors new order we have some freedoms to do some other things. We want to do what is right.”

Pastor Efta has been at this congregation for 20 years. The Eftas previously were in a mission in Poland “for eight or nine years” prior to coming Leavenworth. As for the Leavenworth congregation’s Sunday service, Efta thinks he knows why the happy faces.

“They had the opportunity to be in the presence of good friends. The vast majority of them, the church is the hub of their spiritual life, and their spiritual life is the hub of their life,” said Pastor Efta.

“We believe the scripture is our guidebook. It communicates a message, a straightforward message. It is the first place we are to listen for Him. It is fundamental for us.”

Church of the Open Door had originally been at about Broadway and Ironmoulders but moved to its current location in the mid-1990s. Two years ago, they built the last piece to their church. Church of the Open Door in Leavenworth started another Church of the Open Door in Basehor a couple years ago. The church’s philosophy is to seed smaller size churches with about 250-300 people per location.

“It’s been interesting to pastor this church that’s 100 years old because there’s all that history – trying to get a feel for it and understand it. I didn’t even know until all of this (COVID-19 pandemic) took place that during the Spanish flu, that we were, like everybody else, for three weeks all closed up. They asked people to stay away from gatherings,” Pastor Efta said.

“The actual Church of the Open Door was closed down for three weeks during the Spanish flu,” said Pastor Efta.

Efta talked about the purpose of the May 3 Sunday service.

“The main thing I wanted to do today is lay the foundation that the Lord is providencial. He’s always working. There are times when he just makes it clear that He’s trying to get our attention. He wants us to reflect and think on things that are important in His economy,” Pastor Efta said. “What’s happening for us in our lifetime, you can’t find anybody who says they have any kind of box they can put this in anytime in their lifetime. It’s a completely bizarre weird and unprecedented – and I don’t think that’s an accident. I don’t think it’s just an issue of ‘oh, well, that’s how viruses go – every so often you get a bad one.’ It’s more than that. We want people to say ‘What is God trying to get our attention with here?’ because he rules the government. Even the shutdown is not irrespective of the providential hand of God. What’s He trying to teach us? What does he want us to know? We’ll see as later we go through the Book of Joel that their devastation was for their chastisement as a nation. And it was – as we said in the Marine Corps ‘a shot over their bow’ a warning from God that there is coming an even greater chastisement.

And you’d better take this lesser one and learn from it because the coming day of the Lord is too late,” said Efta.

Pastor Efta suggested that his congregation would say that “The changing of me from my old self to my new self through Christ: that is the answer. And the outworking of that is the love I have for people. When God gets ahold of us, then the things of God flow out from us.”

“Fear and anxiety aren’t wicked things,” Pastor Efta said. “There are times when we should be afraid, we should be anxious. But there’s a lot of false fear and false anxiety. You’ve just got to be very careful. There are certain things we shouldn’t be afraid of because they are in the hands of God. There’s a great deal peace, hope and security when we recognize we are not just something that’s popped up out of nowhere to be dropped down into nowhere – that we are put in the hands of a sovereign creator and He is still intimately engaged in everything that we do.”

Peggy Bair is a longtime area journalist credentialed with the American Society of Media Photographers Kansas City branch. She holds a journalism degree from UMKC and has written and photographed for six different newspapers over a 24 year career as a journalist and an award-winning photojournalist with the National Press Photographers Association. Her work has appeared also in USA Today, People Magazine and worldwide via Associated Press.

Although my business has been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, I have not accepted any payment, grants, government assistance or unemployment for my journalism during this pandemic. If you would like to donate to the support honest storytelling, you can contribute to my PayPal by posting any amount to my PayPal donation link.

“I value every one of my story subjects for the honor of sharing them with the world. I believe every person is here for a reason and every person has a lesson to teach and a story to tell” – Peggy Bair

Social distancing is practiced and wearing a mask in certain settings where it is called for – as well as photographing with a long lens are best practices employed at this time. Several long lenses were used for this assignment. Subjects in the story practiced safe social distancing even though they may appear in some photographs to be closer together. This is due to an illusion of compression that results from using a very long lenses like 300mm400mm, 600mm or 800mm lenses. If there is an illusion of people looking like they are closer together, it is the illusion of lens compression.