Honk to say Amen: Mills church adapts to COVID-19 era (Photo Gallery) - Casper, WY Oil City News
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Honk to say Amen: Mills church adapts to COVID-19 era (Photo Gallery)

The Fort Ministry pastor James Shade preaches as faithful listen safely in their cars during a drive-up service on Sunday, April 26, 2020, in Mills. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo. – Hands were instinctively raised to the heavens as inspirational music swelled during a Sunday morning church service at The Fort Ministry in Mills.

For some, the hands exited passenger side windows. For others, they put a sunroof to good use.

A hand rises from the sunroof during praise and worship at a drive-up church service in Mills. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

In many ways, the service at The Fort Ministry in Mills was no different than any other Sunday. But in other ways, it’s very different.

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Pastor James Shade decided early on to move his services online and close the auditorium in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He didn’t like much preaching to a web camera and empty chairs.

“We were built to be in relationships,” he said.

Sarah Brownlee sings with her son during the praise and worship section of the service on Sunday at The Fort Ministry in Mills. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

The idea of a drive-up service dawned on him while sitting in traffic.

“I looked around and thought, ‘well this is legal.’ If we put 30 or 40 cars in a parking lot, why would that be any different.”

After checking with officials and setting up rules, he and his staff started organizing the service.

On a recent Sunday morning, a robust sound system pumped music and his voice through the cool and calm air around the church’s home in a Mills strip mall. Worshippers sat in cars that had been directed into orderly groups around an outdoor stage. After the music, whoops were heard from open windows and horns honked in approval during a lively sermon.

Staff help organize cars as they arrive for the drive-up service at The Fort Ministry in Mills. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

The experience is more important than ever during unprecedented times, said Shade.

“You can’t do anything together anymore,” he said. “We are social creatures, so we have to do something rather than just sit alone.”

“This gives us that, people can say ‘hi’ and gives them a destination, something to go to.”

Shade says over 50 cars have parked in the lot for his services, with more arriving as the weather improves. Everyone is instructed to stay in their vehicle at all times.

Associate pastor Thomas Fuhrer opens the service with praise and worship on Sunday in Mills. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

“We’re not trying to steal anybody’s sheep as it were, we really want people to stay with their church, but right now they’re looking for something to do, a destination to be a part of,” he said.

Shade says his message has changed during the pandemic. “There’s fear and there’s anxiety, so we have to address that,” he said.

Don and Sarah Brownlee packed five of their seven children into their Suburban for Sunday’s service.

The family usually attends Highland Park, but now that they and most churches moved to online-only services, the family started attending The Fort’s drive-up services.

They still watch Highland Park services online on Fridays, but the parking lot church gives them something they miss. Fellowship.

“You feel it, you can see other people getting into it and it really helps,” said Don. “We lean on God with everything we do. Without the fellowship, we’d be lost.”

The Fort Ministry’s drive-up services start at 10 a.m. at 4741 W. Yellowstone Highway in Mills. The service is also broadcast live on 830 KUYO-AM.

Photography by Dan Cepeda, Oil City News

The Latest Statistics from the Wyoming Department of Health:

What to do if you are feeling sick: In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Casper-Natrona County Health Department says that people who are feeling sick or exhibiting symptoms should contact their primary physician.

If you do not have a primary care provider, and live in Natrona County, please contact the COVID-19 hotline, operated by the Casper-Natrona County Department of Health. The line is open Monday – Friday 8:00 am – 5:00 pm 577-9892. Hotline services are intended for Natrona County residents and may not be able to provide specific information to persons calling from out of county.

Officials ask that you please do not self-report to the Emergency Room. Persons experiencing problems breathing should call 9-11.

For general inquiries and non-symptom related questions about COVID-19, please contact the Casper-Natrona County Health Department via email: covid@cnchd.org

  • Practice Social Distancing by putting distance between yourself and other people. This is especially important for people who are at higher risk of getting very sick.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Stay home if you’re sick
  • Cover coughs and sneezes. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow.
  • Clean AND disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks.

A list of area closures attributed to COVID-19 are available here.