From more than a block away, Pastor Daniel McGehee’s thunderous voice can be heard over the soft ruffling of windswept foliage and ceaseless chirping birds, Holy Week’s welcomed springtime companions.
In recent weeks his mostly outdoor church, which brings people together through financial blessings in the form of gift cards, bill payments, car giveaways and even paying laundry, has been forced to grapple with the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Today’s venue is in the carport of a small family home in north Mobile. The attendance is just seven people. Despite legal constraints placed on churches by Governor Kay Ivey’s order prohibiting groups of 10 or more, McGehee sees a huge opportunity for the religious community.
“This coronavirus has given us an opportunity to take church outside of the four walls,” said McGehee, who said that he has personally reached out to about 90,000 people with his open-air style preaching and blessings. “How cool could it have been to slide into a parking lot to help us on this journey?”
He added: “I’ve been trying to do this for 20 years, take the church to the streets.”
“Just like Jesus did,” chimed McGehee’s assistant, David Melendez, who said that the pastor used his words to help him beat a severe drug addiction. “Jesus saved me, but it was Daniel who had the words of knowledge. I would have been condemned.”
Social distancing and the state-wide lock down have hit religious organizations particularly hard. Some churches have taken services online, while others have filled parking lots with those eager to hear soothing words during what is an anxious time for many. And some churches have closed altogether.
Instead of holding services inside one of Mobile’s many impressive monuments to religion, McGehee prefers to keep it simple. On any given day, the Mobile County-born pastor can be seen in the Gulf Coast’s city streets, fields and vacant lots, gesticulating with his microphone and jet-black bible.
He calls his group Rural Revival America.
On this Palm Sunday, McGehee delivered his Holy Ghost sermon to the small group sat on grey rusting foldout chairs in the crime-rich, money-poor neighborhood of Toulminville, north of Mobile.
For his loyal congregation, having a service in the carport of their home was admittedly unusual but has helped fill a void in their life brought on by the unprecedented pandemic.
“I miss the fellowship from other Christians,” said Keith McCall, whose mother lives in the small home hosting the day’s service. “but this is the best we can do within the limits of the law. I really appreciate what the pastor has brought to this home.”
Also at the service was Jeanette Loftin, who said that church and religion had helped her stay clean from drugs for eight years. “Not being able to attend a church doesn’t matter much to me,” she said. “I get what I need from this. “It kind of feels like a church picnic.”
Oddly enough, Toulminville has some connection to global pandemics. The neighborhood is the birthplace of George C. Gorgas, the former U.S. Surgeon General of the Army between 1914-1918. Gorgas is best known for abating the transmission of yellow fever and malaria. He’s credited with saving thousands of lives during the construction of the Panama Canal, as well as instituting new hygiene measures that helped battle the tropical illness around the world.
The majority African American neighborhood is littered with churches. Some had short in-person services outside on lawns, although most seemed closed.
Rather than being surrounded by religious antiquities and artifacts that you might see in a regular church, old car tires, a rusting exercise bike, and household odds and ends were part of McGehee’s stage, which also backed up onto a cemetery.
He spoke in tongues for parts of the service, gave lessons on the Holy Ghost, led the singing of three songs and even talked about how he best likes to prepare fish. Covered in cheese and placed back in the oven, if you must know.
McGehee’s service in the carport was one of three that he was giving Palm Sunday. McGehee takes donations from his congregation that he then passes along to others in the community. This week he plans to raise $200 so he can give away 20 $10 Walmart gift cards. Last week he gave away $50 and $100 gift cards, while he’s also paid for $550 worth of laundry over the last two weeks. He’s also given away 26 vehicles to people who needed them for work.
His preferred style has meant he can bring dozens of people together in the street, where he sometimes preaches from inside his new boat, towed from the back of his white Ford F-150.
However, given the coronavirus outbreak and orders from state officials, McGehee has been criticized for bringing so many people together. He has reduced the size of his services since Governor Kay Ivey passed her April 3 lockdown order.
“I haven’t watched the news in 23 days,” he said, adding that he didn’t want negativity in his life. “I heard about the governor’s order from a friend who said I needed to be careful with how many people were attending services. I didn’t watch Fox, CNN, or even Mobile news. I’ve been reading the bible and hunting and fishing.”
He added: “If I can only have nine people six feet apart, then we gonna do six and nine. People are my church.”