Shouts of “hallelujah!” rang out as car horns blared and a four-member rock band played from a small stage Wednesday evening in the parking lot of a neighborhood church near the South Texas Medical Center.

Dozens of adults and children milled about before the event started while others waited inside or seated on top of their cars and tailgates for Pastor Brian Ayala to start the weekday church service at Xtreme Harvest Church at 7015 Wurzbach Road.

As the band did a mic check, a church staffer reminded the growing crowd to practice social distancing by standing at least 6 feet apart from one another – two arms’ lengths, she said – or the church could receive a $1,000 fine. A handful of people wore face masks or bandanas covering their mouths and noses for the Passover service.

“This sickness is going to pass you over!” Ayala said as he took the stage, the setting sun briefly illuminating the stage as the parking lot and side streets filled with cars and people.

Then, as more people arrived and gathered closer to the stage, they shouted and lifted their hands into the air, reacting to the Christian rock band’s chorus of “we love you Jesus” and Ayala’s call for the people to give praise to God.

“We have taken every precaution necessary, we have gone above and beyond,” Ayala said, preaching about Moses and the Passover story in his trademark fire-and-brimstone style. “But, baby, we are protected by the blood of Jesus.”

Worshippers of Xtreme Harvest Church watch a live service from the Medical Center Baptist Church parking lot on Palm Sunday. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

In recent weeks, most San Antonio religious leaders, churches, and synagogues have canceled their in-person services to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. With some exceptions, nationwide, churches are live-streaming their services and telling their followers to obey shelter-in-place orders.

The move came too late for one chorale group near Seattle, where members met on March 10 at the church that hosts its rehearsals to practice songs while social distancing. Forty-five members were later diagnosed with the virus or had symptoms, and two died, according to a Los Angeles Times report.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott put an order in place on March 31 that prohibits gatherings of 10 people or more and closed all nonessential businesses. Departing from federal guidelines, he said churches are considered essential and could continue to meet under certain conditions.

A spokeswoman for the City of San Antonio said the City received several calls last weekend regarding church services, and for each call, police officers provided information to church staff on guidelines to be followed for social distancing or observed that the guidelines were being followed.

Though Abbott’s guidance states that if a community is experiencing substantial community spread of COVID-19, all in-person gatherings of any size should be canceled, Ayala is going forward with not only his regular weekday service, but also Easter Sunday plans for potentially two services on that day.

The 6-year-old church, which leases the space owned by the Medical Center Baptist Church, along with three other small church groups that make up an “international body of believers,” held its Wednesday evening service on April 1 after initially canceling the event.

“That day when the governor [said] that the churches were now considered essential, we went ahead and opened up – until then we had been closed down,” the pastor’s wife, Cija Ayala, said while talking to the Rivard Report from the driver’s seat of a pickup truck after the church’s April 5 afternoon service.

But they moved the service outdoors, she said, and spaced folding chairs 6 feet apart. The church also hired security professionals to make sure attendees were complying with social distancing guidelines and limited the number of people who could use the restroom indoors. Church staff wearing masks were seen wiping chairs and using hand sanitizer.

Asked why they are holding services when many others have canceled in-person events, Cija said it’s because the congregation needs the sense of community the church provides.

“We do a lot of outside, in-the-street ministry. We have a lot of people that are new to church – they’re coming out of different types of backgrounds, OK?” she said.

“[People] that are coming out of the drug scene and out of the bar scene, people who may be coming from situations at home and they sought God to help heal them. We were at home and getting called on the hour and a lot of them were depressed.”

During the service Wednesday night, Ayala said the reason to hold services during the crisis is “because souls matter.”

An Xtreme Harvest Church worshipper sits atop a vehicle Wednesday in the parking lot of Medical Center Baptist Church, where Xtreme Harvest holds outdoor services. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Cija said the congregation, which includes people who work in the medical field and has a usual attendance of 150 to 200 people, has grown in recent weeks. Those who usually attend other area churches that are closed are seeking in-person services despite the City’s Stay Home, Work Safe orders.

“As pastors, it’s our job to foster that for the people – that spiritual guidance,” Cija said. “But we don’t want to be in opposition with the City or the laws.”

Their solution, she said, was the outdoor service, which the church commonly holds when the weather permits. The church is also streaming worship services and Bible studies on Facebook.

But officers with the San Antonio Police Department have paid a visit to the church during recent services. Darwin Lowe, who serves as pastor of the Medical Center Baptist Church and associate pastor at Xtreme Harvest, said the officers came “just to let us know what it is that’s allowed and not allowed,” he said.

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Though Lowe said he is putting his trust in God first to protect congregants from the virus, he said he has read all of the Center for Disease Control guidelines to make sure they are following the recommendations for social distancing and sanitation.

Lowe canceled all in-person services of the Medical Center Baptist Church and moved them online because its members are mostly elderly and more vulnerable, he said. In addition to Xtreme Harvest, the other churches that meet on the property, the San Antonio Chinese Church and the International Praise Center, made up of people from Africa, also canceled in-person services.

“Each congregation is responsible for what they choose to do and are accountable for that – we left it up to the liberty of each pastor to consider what he wanted to do,” Lowe said.

Xtreme Harvest Church Senior Pastor Brian Ayala preaches on Palm Sunday to a parking lot full of worshippers. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, site of a mass shooting in 2017, also held services April 5 inside its new facility. “In the midst of this pandemic that’s sweeping across the country, we’ve allowed ourselves to get in a position where we’re out in the middle of a worry field, and we’re stepping on so many worry mines when in reality there’s a pathway that’s laid out there,” Pastor Frank Pomeroy told the congregation.

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The church is also planning in-person services on Easter Sunday but will broadcast the services on a local radio station as well. Pomery did not respond to a message left with the church office on Wednesday.

Sean Azzaro, senior pastor of River City Community Church in Selma, said his church’s Holy Week services will be live-streamed only.

The church usually holds Easter Sunday services in its open-air Real Life Amphitheater which can seat up to 20,000 spread out on the hillside.

“Governor Abbott said religious services are essential, so we could [have services in the amphitheater],” Azzaro said. “But … we’re just going to go ahead and ride this for a little while until we get the go-ahead that it’s time to start going out.”

When that happens, the church will probably hold a “big reunion” at the amphitheater, he said, where there’s plenty of room for people to enjoy the service without getting too close to anybody else.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is a journalist and writer in San Antonio, and a business reporter for The Rivard Report.