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Easter at Drive-In : Worshipers Prefer the Informality of Service on Wheels

Times Staff Writer

It was Easter Sunday service with a difference. Worshipers waved to each other from their cars, mostly late-model American sedans. In response to the preacher, they honked their horns. Many tuned in to the sermon on their vehicle radios, 540 on their AM dials. And, since this service was being held on the site of a drive-in movie theater, others monitored the preachers’ words on the drive-in’s speakers.

Afterward, they had the option of checking out the swap meet in the adjoining parking lot or trading in their vehicles at any of the nearby dealerships.

“People don’t want to get out of their cars, that’s how this whole thing started,” Phyllis Mosier was explaining as she checked off the numbers of vehicles attending Sunday’s 9 a.m. service. “We had 58 cars the first Sunday this month, 53 the second. We had 32 at our Easter sunrise services this morning. It was beautiful. There must be another 50 or so cars here now.”

Pulpit on Back of Truck

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Since November, 1974, the Chula Vista Community Church has held Sunday services in the parking lot of the Harbor Drive-In Theater, near the National City line, at the south end of the celebrated “Mile of Cars,” a seemingly endless series of dealerships and signs. The minister preaches to his flock from a pulpit fashioned in the back of a truck, a large cross providing the backdrop. Microphones hook up his words with the drive-in’s speaker system and with the local radio station. Also amplified are religious tapes and music by the church pianist, who sits in the church truck. On Sunday, pots of lilies festooned the pulpit. The blank movie screen stood behind the site.

The vision of worshipers praying in their Chevrolets and Plymouths, concentrating on a minister preaching from the back of a truck, is initially a bit jarring for those who have long associated organized religious worship with churches, temples and mosques, many lavishly designed and decorated. The setting can lead to some clashing images: A recent drive-in marquee featured a number of films, including a movie called “Unholy,” above the sign advertising the drive-in church services.

No matter. However bizarre it may appear, the drive-in worship concept is a logical and fairly well-rooted extension of America’s fascination with the automobile (drive-in eateries, movies and funeral homes are long-established). And it does have an allure for many--and not only in Southern California, where the notion seems almost emblematic. Such services have, in fact, been held for some time at scattered sites throughout the nation. (At one Michigan drive-in, a parishioner here noted, worshipers during winter months use portable heaters hooked to the speaker poles.)

Why a drive-in church? A lot of reasons.

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For one thing, many of the more than 100 or so worshipers each Sunday are elderly, infirm or disabled; the drive-in ceremony is accessible. Others speak of the ease of having their children in the back of the car and not having to worry about them screaming and upsetting other worshipers, or finding baby sitters. Smokers like being able to light up with their supplications.

For others, though, some of whom drive her from as far away as Riverside, there are deeper reasons.

“Some people feel more comfortable; this has become their place,” explained the Rev. Paul Veenstra, senior pastor of the Chula Vista Community Church, who performs the weekly service between ceremonies at the congregation’s nearby community church.

Linked to Crystal Cathedral

The Chula Vista church, of evangelical Christian beliefs, is a sister institution to the Crystal Cathedral Ministry of Robert Schuller, the noted “Hour of Power” televangelist who has also held such outdoor services. Rev. Veenstra, who is committed to the drive-in concept, says his outdoor sermon is the same as his in-church message, though he speaks of a special feeling among the drive-in congregation.

Indeed, a congenial family atmosphere prevails at the service. The congregation of 100-150 at the drive-in session is mostly white, although a number of black families also attended. (The large area Latino population, mostly Roman Catholic, was not in evidence at the drive-in service.) Young and old alike were present.

Clearly, a need is filled. For those too intimidated or turned off to walk into a church, the drive-in option provides a relatively non-threatening alternative. Such services, says Rev. Veenstra, frequently serve as a kind of half-way facility for worshipers “transitioning” back to church after being away from organized religion for months or years. Many one-time churchgoers become reacclimated here and later return to more standard worship.

But many others say they have no real interest in returning to the old way. They’re happy in their cars. While some park in the back of the lot and studiously avoid fellow-churchgoers, preferring solitary contemplation, many others mingle before services at a coffee table set up in front of the theater concession stand.

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Turn on Lights for Communion

Apart from its setting, the service resembles other Sunday offerings. As in most churches, a collection is included; the usher goes car to car. On a bimonthly basis, communion is also served. Those who want to receive the bread are asked to illuminate their headlights. The minister also performs Baptisms in front of the congregants.

“What better place to worship than in the outdoors, in God’s own creation?” asked John Van Ballegooijen, a genial retiree from the Midwest, who has been attending Sunday drive-in services regularly almost since the concept took hold here almost 15 years ago. Van Ballegooijen spoke as he fiddled with the speaker system in a booth set up behind the pulpit in the truck.

Along with the convenience of not having to exit from one’s car, there are also other practical advantages. For instance, pets aren’t welcome at most church services. It’s different here.

“I’d say we get a good half-dozen dogs here every Sunday,” noted Phyllis Mosier, the volunteer, who was going to car to car as her pet, Pretzel, remained back in the car with her husband, Bob. (Occasional barks could be heard during the hour-long service.) Mosier also plays her accordion on Sundays.

Many drive-in aficionados spoke approvingly of the informality. Even on Easter Sunday, a traditional time of strutting new outfits, many of those present wore jeans.

“I have to wear a suit the rest of the week,” said Ron Dellinger, a banker from Chula Vista, who donned a leather jacket and open-neck shirt. “It’s a more relaxed atmosphere.”

Children in attendance appear to appreciate the novelty and the ease of it all. The church runs a Sunday school concurrent with the services. An Easter egg hunt preceded services Sunday, sending youths scurrying about the parking lot and projection building seeking the hidden eggs. In the summer, the Sunday school sponsors “Jesus loves you” hikes in the parking lot.

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“At least you don’t have to sit on those hard church seats,” noted Angel Perry, 10, dressed in pink for the occasion. “You’re more comfortable. If it’s raining, you turn on the windshield wiper. If it’s cold, you just put on the heater.”

Added Tiffany Smith, 9, also dressed in her Easter best: “You don’t have to get out of your car. If you like something, you don’t have to clap. You just honk your horn.”


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