By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published September 3, 2020 | En Español
ELLIJAY—Father Carlos Vargas knew his 1920s church wasn’t designed for a 21st century pandemic.
The pastor of Good Samaritan Church, Ellijay, had to brainstorm ways to keep people connected to their faith once public Masses resumed in June.
Following safety guidelines limits the number of people attending Mass.
The Saturday vigil Mass, with required reservations and safety measures, accommodates about 20, when worshippers in the pews usually number more than 100.
He figured there’d need to be more than five Masses a weekend to accommodate everyone, and being one priest, it’d be impossible.
“We have to keep the solemnity of the celebration, but we still need to be available,” he said. “You know how we can keep this balance?”
Church leaders sharing the gospel are being stretched to be creative. For Good Samaritan Church what made sense was a drive-in Mass. It is a throwback to the 1950s when car culture was still a novelty.
Since June, the hub of the Catholic community in this North Georgia mountain town on Sunday mornings has been the parking lot of the Gilmer County Civic Center.
There are two Masses back to back. About 50 cars roll up for the English Mass and some 70 cars drive in for the Spanish Mass.
The 43-year-old priest celebrates the liturgy assisted by deacons under a small tent atop an elevated trailer bed so parishioners can pray from their cars with radios tuned to 94.5 FM. A low powered transmitter plugged into the church sound system sends out the signal that can be received for up to a mile, too small to require a license. A small table is the altar. The clergymen read the Scriptures of the day. For communion, the ministers distribute the Eucharist to worshippers, who roll down their windows to receive.
The relationship with the center is very cooperative. The parish leaves the parking lot “like nothing happened,” he said.
Father Vargas became the spiritual leader of the community about 80 miles north of Atlanta in 2014. He celebrated in the spring the 10th anniversary of his ordination.
Preaching to folks seated behind a car’s windshield wasn’t part of seminary training. He has had to consider fulfilling spiritual needs in ways never discussed in seminary. There are technology issues, safety concerns, people’s spiritual needs, and all need to be balanced, he said.
“I think about it, I pray about it, about the way you can reach people,” he said.
Gilmer County has had more than 700 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with five reported deaths, and 69 people hospitalized, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
While navigating these times, Father Vargas practices self-care by adding books to his library, reading and finishing spiritual studies he said he’s ignored for too long. In addition, he’s added daily walks and jogging to his routine, he said.
Editor’s note: This is one of three stories on how church leaders have responded to the pandemic and spiritual needs of others. The other pieces feature a Trappist monk who provides online retreats, and a choir director with no choir who continues to share music.