Sunday afternoon was rainy and raw, and the sky was gray. But you might have barely noticed if you were in the caravan of SUVs winding its way from Tabernacle Baptist Church in Burlington County, along the county’s far flung roads.
The mission: celebrating the seventh anniversary of Pastor Cory L. Jones by making a special outreach to some of the congregation’s elder members, particularly in these isolating coronavirus times.
One of the first stops was the home of Donald Price, 71, of Burlington City, a retired chef and disabled Vietnam War veteran. Jones jumped out of his Toyota Highlander, and staying at a safe distance, called greetings as others in the entourage waved placards with messages like “We Miss You!"
Price’s face mask covered up his smile, but you could see it in his eyes.
“Stay safe! Stay safe!” he called out as they drove off.
“It was wonderful,” Price said, later. “It was a great feeling. Much love.”
That was the idea.
Although Tabernacle Baptist already had online worship options before COVID-19, Jones said those have been increased, including an additional Bible study, fun games, and outreach like pastor’s robocalls. Since mid-March, all Sunday services for the 2,000-member church have gone online.
However, many seniors live alone and are at risk of becoming especially isolated, even if it’s for their own protection, said Jones. That led to the idea for the caravan.
“Since the coronavirus affects seniors in a more dangerous way, family members have chosen to keep their distance from them. It can be a lonely experience,” Jones, 40, said. “I wanted to show them some love and let them know that as a church, we are thinking about them and we love them. We are separated, but they are not alone. Their pastor and church cares.”
“It was really a breath of fresh air and sunshine,” said Judyth Vazquez, 74, of Florence, shortly after her visit from the pastor’s caravan.
A retired education administrator, Vazquez says she’s blessed; her son is living with her during the virus, she has her own car, and she meets with a prayer group via Zoom.
But the avid gardener misses visiting Longwood Gardens, shopping, and having lunch with friends — “that kind of thing” — so she said she thought it was very nice of her pastor and the others to make the extra effort of driving by and making a stop.
“It was the highlight of my day,” Vazquez said.
Claudine and Earl Conaway, parents of Burlington City Mayor Barry Conaway, are pretty active seniors themselves. Their great-grandson Anthony, 9, lives with them. Both of them drive. And Earl had just turned 89 last week, but that didn’t stop him from climbing up to their roof to make some needed repairs.
And when their pastor honked his car horn to let them know the entourage had arrived, Claudine, 78, was ready with a dozen roses to celebrate Jones’ anniversary, and the couple had their own homemade signs thanking their visitor for thinking of them.
“It really touched me that he thought of the seniors on his anniversary,” said Claudine.
Vivian Hurtt, a retired state worker, said she could barely make it outside fast enough when she got the call that Pastor Jones was on his way. It was her first time in weeks seeing her pastor in person rather than by computer.
“We miss you!” Jones called out to Hurtt, who was standing in the shelter of her Bordentown home’s garage. “We can’t wait to get this all over. Big hugs!”
“I miss you, too!” Hurtt called back. “Thank you so much for coming!”
“Wasn’t that beautiful?” she said, after the pastor’s visit.
Hurtt still starts her days with prayer, as always, but the virus has affected her routine as it has for just about everyone. She used to volunteer and attend Bible study and, of course, attend church every Sunday. All that has stopped.
“It gets kind of stressful sometimes, because you’re confined,” Hurtt said. “But you have to do what you have to do.”
One of the things she will appreciate having back the most is “being in God’s house,” said Hurtt. Especially Tabernacle Baptist.
“I know that God visits all churches,” Hurtt said, “but I believe He’s a member of Tabernacle Baptist Church.”