A line of cars are approaching the Set The Captives Free Outreach Center.

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.

Rev. Bethea stands inside an open car door, greeting a participant in the Set The Captives Free Outreach.

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

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.”

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.

Set The Captives Free outreach workers are taking a break and posing for the camera.

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

“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.”

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.

As a result of STCF’s partnership with Baltimore County, the health department’s Woodlawn

Senior Pastor Linwood Bethea, Senior Pastor Karen Bethea and Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski Jr. pose in front of the Baltimore County seal and U.S., Maryland, and Baltimore County flags.

Senior Pastors Karen and Linwood Bethea share a laugh with Baltimore County Executive John “Johnny O” Olszewski, Jr. (Courtesy photo)

Health Center is located at The O.W.E. Center and provided the community with an easily-accessible, conveniently-located site for COVID-19 testing and other health screenings. A 20-year lease ensures the continued availability of those and other necessary health services.

Although the shutdown prevented STCF members from coming together to perform some of the community outreach activities they would have normally performed, Dr. Bethea is proud of the way her members responded to the obstacles created by COVID and humbly proclaims, “Our church did not skip a beat, in terms of their commitment and dedication. Their online presence was amazing. But then, they also gave. Our giving went up. Giving increased, as opposed to decreasing, which I thought was beautiful. Some churches suffered tremendously. But we went stronger and stronger.”

For additional information about STCF’s re-opening plan and updates, visit https://stcfoc.com/covid19updates/.

Visit https://www.facebook.com/stcfoc for information about STCF’s online worship services and other virtual offerings.

Visit https://www.facebook.com/theowecenter/ and http://theowecenter.com/ for information about services offered at The O.W.E. (Outreach| Worship| Education) Center, which include a Maryland Food Bank supported food pantry, Baltimore County Health Department and WIC office, workforce development center, Halos hair salon and others.

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Jannette J. Witmyer

Special to the AFRO