Annette Hestres holds her hands up in prayer during the kayak church service at Bald Eagle State Park, Pa., on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020. State College Faith United Church of Christ hosted the floating service which allowed for the members to socially distance. RNS photo by Abby Drey

‘Kayak Church’ gathers in person — and on the water — amid pandemic

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By Emily McFarlan Miller | RNS

HOWARD, Pa. (RNS) —  The Sunday worship service began with a prayer thanking God for the chance to meet in a beautiful sanctuary. 

Pastor Jes Kast welcomes the congregation of Faith United Church of Christ to a kayak church service at Bald Eagle State Park, Pa., on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020. RNS photo by Abby Drey

Then the pastor prayed that the service would encourage members’ hearts and provoke their imaginations — and that “if we get wet, let us have fun.”

“If we fall in, we will remember our baptism this morning,” said the Rev. Jes Kast.

With that, the people of Faith United Church of Christ said “amen” and launched their boats into the reservoir at Bald Eagle State Park.

Welcome to Kayak Church.  

More than two dozen people joined the brightly colored flotilla for Kayak Church on Sunday (Aug. 30) as Faith, like so many other churches across the country, dips its toes into meeting together in person after months apart during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

For some, it was the first time they’d been together for worship in months.

“Isn’t it good to see people? It just feels good to be here together,” Kast said.

Since the pandemic forced states to cancel large gatherings and issue stay-at-home orders this spring, congregations across the country have found creative ways to stay connected.

Worship changed overnight. In-person services were canceled for Easter, one of the biggest celebrations of the year for Christians.

Many churches have been streaming services online for months. Some have opened their parking lots for drive-in services.

Those who have met in person have done so with smaller gatherings, social distancing, mask wearing and other measures meant to protect worshippers from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Faith has been meeting on Zoom all this time, with prayers and coffee hours throughout the week in addition to Sunday services. The church’s board has decided not to meet again in its building in State College, Pennsylvania, through at least the end of the year, Kast said.

But the pastor wanted to find ways for people to meet in person while still keeping safe. 

The idea for Kayak Church Sunday came to Kast as she and her wife, Jessy Defenderfer, were kayaking on vacation earlier this summer.

The couple is “so churchy” that Kast asked Defenderfer to read Psalm 24 aloud while out on the water. When Kast heard the words of the psalm — which begins, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” — she got the idea for what eventually would become Kayak Church. 

And so on Sunday, Kast found herself preaching from a kayak, tucked along the shoreline in a little cove not far from the boat launch.

Pastor Jes Kast welcomes the congregation of Faith United Church of Christ to a kayak church service at Bald Eagle State Park, Pa., on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020. RNS photo by Abby Drey

She looked out on a congregation of worshippers in kayaks, canoes and paddleboards bobbing in the water, surrounded by gentle, tree-covered mountains, a foreshadowing of fall in the air.

Kast’s message — an illustration drawn from Psalm 24 and from nature about how fire ants work together to survive in a disaster — was accompanied by the gentle splash of paddles, the buzz of invisible insects and chirp of birds overhead.

The ants, she told the congregation, can’t survive on their own. Instead, they work together and help each other out, so they can all thrive. 

“We as a church are sticking together,” she said. “We’re helping each other out, we’re breathing together in our little pockets, we’re coming together as one to support and encourage each other.”

Worshipper Annette Hestres felt at home having church on the water.

Hestres had spent some time away from church before coming to Faith, she said. She recalled paddleboarding on a similar Sunday morning and thinking, “This is my church.”

Now here she was with Faith, which provided “nurturing” and a community she said she wouldn’t have had otherwise through the pandemic.

It was the pandemic that led Denise Alving, a graduate student at Penn State University, to seek out a church.

“Everything gets slowed down a little and you think about what’s important,” Alving said.

She’d been attending Faith’s services online, she said.

On Sunday, she attended one of Faith’s services for the first time in person with her friends and fellow grad students, newlyweds Devyn McPheeters and Alex Sredenschek, who had brought along the yellow Labrador, Luna, they were pet-sitting.

Luna laid contentedly at their feet at the bottom of the canoe they’d rented from the park.

Her human companions were enjoying Kayak Church, too.

“We’re adventurous people so we like being out on the water. We were like, ‘Yes, let’s do that,’ because we’d get to see people and also get to have some fun,” McPheeters said.

For those who didn’t feel as comfortable in a kayak, the church also held its “traditional” Zoom service later that morning. 

During the service on the water, the pastor asked people to call out their prayer requests as they paddled into the breeze to keep from being jostled into one another and pushed back to shore: for safe travels, for health, for everyone impacted by Hurricane Laura, an expression of gratitude for the sunshine.

“God, hear our prayer,” the kayakers chorused before joining in the Lord’s Prayer and doxology.

Kast read the poem “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver. It ends with the words, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?”

Kast also offered a brief benediction.

“Go in peace and kayak and canoe,” she said.

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