Cars line up for drive-by at Set The Captives Free Outreach Center. (Courtesy Photo)

By Jannette J. Witmyer
Special to the AFRO

After navigating a year of separation imposed by the COVID-19 shutdown, Set The Captives Free Outreach Center (STCF) began welcoming congregants back on Palm Sunday (2021), following Governor Hogan’s decreased capacity limits announced in mid-March. In the latest of many steps toward fully reopening, STCF members joyfully attended the 10 a.m., July 11, Worship Service without preregistration requirements for the first time since returning to their physical place of worship.

Members are happy to be back, and Senior Pastor Dr. Karen S. Bethea is happy to see them. But she’s taking things one step at a time, and safety protocols like social distancing and other precautions are still in place.

“Every Sunday, more and more people are coming back,” she said. “We’re at about 50 percent now. They still have to clean their hands, do the thermometer check … but they don’t have to register online anymore. We’re going to take it slow because I really want to take our time and ease back into it.”

Rev. Bethea greets a Set The Captives Free drive-by participant. (Courtesy photo)

Although the shutdown emptied their pews, and worship services, prayer meetings, and their most vital community service, the food pantry, could no longer be held within the walls of The O.W.E. Center; all those services continued, just in modified forms.

Bethea credits the church’s millennial staff members with having established a strong online presence, prior to the pandemic, which allowed them to direct members to their Facebook page and YouTube channel for worship services and Zoom Cloud Meetings for interactive assemblies, just as they would have when implementing their snow plan.

While rendering the services online was nothing new, and accomplishing the transition was easy, Bethea said it took its toll. “Virtual wasn’t different. What was different was coming to church every week, and ministering to an empty room. Our band and our worship team and our production team were with me through the whole ordeal, but the room was empty. And that was very difficult,” she explains.

“Having people back in the building has been an absolute joy, because fellowship is really central to what Christians do. And each Sunday, as people return, you can see people greeting each other, and the joy , because they haven’t seen people in so long.”

But the return of in-person worship won’t shut down STCF’s online ministries. “During COVID, we noticed people worshiping with us from all over the country. So, we started what we call “e-church,” where people can join our church from anywhere in the world now. So, we’re going to keep our virtual presence, even though we’re open, because now we have people who can only worship with us, on Sunday, online,” Dr. Bethea said.

“On Wednesday nights, we’re going to stay online until December of this year, at which time we’re going to re-evaluate whether or not we need to stay online with that, as well.”

Rev. Bethea and workers take a break from parking lot clean-up. (Courtesy photo)

Before COVID, STCF’s food pantry, like most kitchens in Black homes, was a place where regulars gathered and spent time just hanging out. During the shutdown, it became a drive-thru operation. Still, every Thursday, people drive up, food is placed in their trunks, and they drive off. Bethea says that, for now, it’s also a practice that will continue.

Drive-by celebrations were readily adopted as a practice that safely allowed distanced face-to-face interactions, from STCF honoring graduates in 2020 and 2021, to members throwing a surprise, drive-by birthday celebration for their senior pastor this May. The congregation even participated in a community clean-up where they cleaned Security Mall’s parking lot, creating a pristine backdrop for such events.

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Jannette J. Witmyer

Special to the AFRO