Outdoor Amphitheater Feels Heaven Sent During COVID-19 at Lake Palestine UMC
By Lindsay Peyton
At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Rev. Ingrid Beguinistain Akers at Lake Palestine UMC in Chandler, like most other pastors, devoted all her energy pivoting to online. Once that task was complete, she got creative, considering sermons in a new light. An answer awaited in the church’s own backyard – an outdoor amphitheater – that soon transformed into the main stage for the congregation.
Rev. Beguinistain Akers has served Lake Palestine UMC for a year but was already aware of the amphitheater. The church also joined with other denominations in the area to host an annual Passion Play in the serene setting on the lake. She also had conducted a prayer at the location for a fundraiser after Hurricane Harvey.
“This is a young church, a mission church that is about 20 years old,” Beguinistain Akers said. “It was started by people who were very missional, and that is still one of the biggest drivers of the church and its members. They’re all about how we can make the world a better place and work for the Kingdom of God in our community.”
Construction of the amphitheater broke ground in 2007 and includes about 2,000 feet of lake frontage. Beguinistain Akers explained that the area was always meant to be a venue for the church as well as a place where the community would gather.
Over the years, the amphitheater was used for Boy Scout camp outs, UMARMY and even HOA meetings. Lake Palestine UMC kept picnic tables, and neighbors would come and spend time by the lake with their friends and their dogs. A number of the people in the area go fishing in the park.
A couple of years ago, the church considered outdoor services in the amphitheater. “But the weather did not cooperate,” Beguinistain Akers said. “They set it aside. We only picked it up again, because of this virus.”
Before starting to gather the congregation outside, the pastor called an infectious disease specialist to ensure that being outside would be safer. At long as everyone stayed 6 feet apart and wore masks, she was informed, it should be safe.
Beguinistain Akers decided to go the extra mile and strive for 12 feet of distance. Then, when she went to measure the stone retaining walls that serve as seats in the amphitheater, she was amazed to discover they were already 12 feet apart. She took that as a sign that she was on the right path.
The stage was large enough that Beguinistain Akers could lead a service and stay safely distanced from members of the praise band. She moved Facebook Live outside to continue to broadcast the service for people who felt more comfortable at home.
The first Sunday outside was for Pentecost. Now, the amphitheater has become the church. Each Sunday, in-person worship begins by the lake at 9:30 a.m.
The services are shorter, about half an hour long. To make the space more accessible, individuals with disabilities are invited to park behind the stage. They can either stay in their cars or put chairs next to their spots. “It’s also the closest distance to the front row if they want to go,” Beguinistain Akers said. “We’re trying to make it as accessible as possible.”
Members are asked to bring a mask to wear and stay 12 feet apart from one another. Some have parked on the top of the hill and still enjoyed the sermon from afar. Others have listened from their boats on the lake.
Beguinistain Akers feels blessed to offer both a space for in-person worship and for the congregation to offer a park for the community.
“To me, it’s really meaningful that this church helps offer rest and respite during this difficult time,” she said. “It’s a place to come and hang out. Other people come here to get food for their family. It’s a sanctuary, and it’s God’s creation. It’s been a wonderful experience.”
Sometimes, Beguinistain Akers explained that she has to pinch herself to see if it is all a dream. Lake Palestine UMC is beyond lucky to have an outdoor amphitheater, she explained. “We’re together even though we’re far apart,” she said. “It’s really a holy space.”
The pastor hopes to continue to offer outdoor services after the pandemic has passed. She even envisions church members attending on stand-up paddleboard. “I’m just loving this,” she said. “People can come; they can be casual. They can pull their boat up to attend if they want. It’s meeting people where they are, which is exactly what Jesus does for us.”
To find out more, visit lakepalestineumc.com.