ASHAWAY — In an effort to make services accessible to everyone, the First Hopkinton Seventh Day Baptist Church in Ashaway has moved its Saturday service outside to a large tent on the lawn.
The Rev. David Stall said the congregation, which has about 120 active members, had seen a drop in attendance during the pandemic.
“Pre-pandemic, our usual attendance was about 105 at a regular Saturday morning service,” he said. “We’ve recovered to about 75 people.”
When the church resumed in-person services about five weeks ago, Stall said measures were in place to keep people a safe distance from each other, but the arrangement was less than ideal.
“We marked off pews and put in one-direction walkways and everything hands-free and no books or anything like that, and we were actually back in the church building, but we were very limited with the flexible seating,” he said. “It’s pews in the church, so we couldn’t spread people out the way we wanted to in order to get people six feet apart. It was really rigid and restrictive, so we were kind of maxing out how we could do that comfortably inside.”
Some church members, Stall noted, were uncomfortable entering the church building and were already sitting outside.
“We have another group of people, about a dozen people, that weren’t comfortable coming back in the building at all but wanted to be at church, so they’ve been sitting outside the church, and we opened windows and put a speaker outside so that we could have a group of people for the last month that have been sitting outside and still participating in the service,” he said. “So that got me thinking, why don’t we all just go outside?”
After seeing large tents being used by restaurants and other businesses, Stall decided that a tent would work for his congregation.
“It’s safer and it’s more comfortable but it still gives shade and shelter from a rain shower. It just seemed like that would be a good solution for us,” he said.
The white tent measures 40 by 60 feet, and people have been asked to bring their own chairs and blankets to sit on.
“Everyone can spread themselves out, six feet apart or 15 feet apart, whatever they’re comfortable with,” he said. “Of course, we make sure that it’s the minimum …. We have one medical professional who is much more at risk for exposure and doesn’t want to expose others and she’s excited this week, because she’ll be able to come and she can sit 20 feet outside the tent, just come off the street and sit on the sidewalk even, and take in church.”
Stall said he had rented the tent from Pranzi Catering in West Warwick until August, but might keep it longer.
“They were really good to us,” he said. “They gave us a nice discount because it was for the church and for the community. None of us knows how long this is going to be, so we got the tent through the end of August, but we may even extend this.”
The town issued the required permit for the tent, which has been rated by the fire marshal to hold up to 160 people while still maintaining social distancing.
“We’ll have more than enough room under the tent, but I still left the option of people being able to spread beyond the sides of the tent,” Stall said. “We left two sides of the tent open for that reason.”
Holding church services in a tent harkens back to the days when many congregations regularly gathered in tents, but in 2020, there are digital-age challenges that require technical adjustments and upgrades.
Church staff and volunteers have been adapting the technology to function well in the tent, a job that has taken many hours.
“We’re going old-fashioned by going out in a tent and we certainly simplified things … and yet there’s still an expectation today that you can see things well and hear things well, and so we’re making sure we can do that, too,” Stall said. “If you’re going to have people 60 feet away from the person preaching, they need to be able to hear.”
Outside the church, Stall has added a humorous sign that reads: “In-tents Worship: 11:00 Saturdays.”
“I am known for horrible jokes and a punny sense of humor,” he said. “We’re just trying to make it kind of fun.”