CAMP ZAMA, Japan (April 17, 2020) – When Chaplain (Capt.) Danny Black ended his Easter proclamation with the words, “He is risen. He is risen, indeed,” rather than the usual “Amen”s from the congregation, a chorus of automobile horns answered him.
The response continued periodically throughout Camp Zama’s first ever “drive-in” Easter service, held April 12 in the community club parking lot here, as several dozen families sat in their vehicles as a preventive measure in response to the coronavirus.
A stage for the chaplains to speak and a live band to play stood at the head of the parked vehicles, as well as a sign instructing attendees to tune their radios to FM 88.9, which allowed the sermons and music to be piped directly to their car stereos.
Worship services on Camp Zama have been conducted via the internet using livestreaming capabilities since March, as concerns over the spread of the coronavirus led to the closure of many facilities and the curtailment of certain services on the installation.
Easter commemorates the resurrection of Jesus, one of the chief tenets of the Christian faith. As the holiday approached, the U.S. Army Japan and U.S. Army Garrison Japan chaplain teams questioned the possibility of holding a non-virtual service that still abided by “social distancing” guidelines. Taking a borrowed idea and inspiration from his wife, Chaplain (Col.) Tony Petros worked with the other chaplains to plan the event.
“We first heard about a church back in the states that was putting something similar together for Easter Sunday,” said Petros, the USARJ command chaplain. “And then my wife remembered when we used to go to a drive-in theater at Fort Drum, [New York,] that used an FM transmitter to broadcast the sound.
“We presented the idea to the commander and thankfully we had support not only from him, but support from the whole community to pull it all together,” Petros added.
As vehicles pulled into the parking lot, drivers rolled their windows down as chaplain assistants and religious affairs specialists—wearing gloves and protective masks—handed them bags filled with eggs and coloring books for the children; sheets with hymn lyrics; and wafers, grape juice and miniature cups for the communion service.
Musical performances from the Gospel Service Praise Team and Zama Summit Chapel Praise team punctuated the service, which also included a children’s message, scripture readings and Petros’ Easter sermon.
Being able to bring the installation’s faith community together, safely, for the first time in weeks was very encouraging, Petros said, and it helped to lessen the sense of disconnectedness he believes some may have been feeling in the last several weeks.
“I think the community wanted to be able to come together for something like this,” Petros said. “I think people were just longing to have that weekly connection and to encourage one another to grow in a faith-based capacity.”
Gabriele Mansfield attended the service with her husband Myron, an Army captain, and their 1-year-old daughter Amelia—wearing a “My First Easter” shirt—and said they both felt that sense of community.
“It was just awesome pulling in and seeing everything set up and getting to see our friends we haven’t seen in a long time, even if it was just a wave,” Gabriele said. “It was just fantastic to be able to bring everyone together and know that we can still worship.”
The benefit of seeing other people at the service, and everyone getting to interact by honking their horns and flashing their headlights, made it an infinitely more enjoyable service than if they had watched it online, Myron added.
The Rojas family—Matt and his wife Tara, and their daughter Angel, 13; and son Noah, 7—sang hymns together during the service and Tara later very carefully poured small cups of grape juice and passed them around so everyone could take communion.
Tara praised everyone who worked hard to organize the unique service, saying it was a “very important event that meant a lot to the community.”
Dennis Nelson, who attended with his wife Paulette and their two teenage daughters, said that despite the different setting, he definitely felt like he was part of a normal church service.
“When believers gather in numbers, it just encourages others and helps others to stay strong in their faith,” Dennis said. “This was a chance to gather in numbers, but be safe and also reach our spiritual needs. This is absolutely one of the most memorable Easter services I’ve ever attended.”
Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Donald Ehrke, the USAG Japan chaplain, said it was “amazing” the way Camp Zama came together to put on the service and called it “a win for the whole community.” The event’s success was even more notable, Ehrke said, because “no one had any history with putting on an event like this.”
“I told my team, we just have to be ready for everything and prepare,” Ehrke said. “We have to be more creative and have an open mind toward whatever opportunities present themselves. I’m really happy with the way that everyone worked together to make this happen.”
Ehrke said as much when he was interviewed live from the United States early the next morning, around 12:30 a.m. local Japan time, to talk about the service during a nationally broadcast segment on Fox News. The fact that the Easter service got media attention from the other side of the world made Ehrke realize, “God’s hand is in all this. We can see that we should never sell ourselves—or the word of God—short.”
“Even if we had to gather together in our cars, everyone here still feels like we were together,” Ehrke said. “You can’t say we didn’t come together today as a faith group and shared God’s word with one another. Today, we were a community.”