Communion at the "Drive-Thru" in Harrisburg, South Dakota

Fr. John and the “Drive thru”

A new, suburban parish in a town in South Dakota. The pandemic, the loneliness of the people, and the suspension of Sunday Mass. Fr. John recounts what has been happening, and talks about the line of cars in his driveway.
Fr. John Rutten

Here I am in the middle of the US, beginning a new parish with an enormous need that is matched only by an enormous desire for Christ to do what He has always done: renew the face of His people. My community’s desire is also to build a church in which we can gather and grow and give praise to God.

This is the path we have been on for three years, since the St. John Paul II Parish in Harrisburg, South Dakota was established, when our world, along with everyone else, was turned upside down by the pandemic.

Fr. John Rutten

These days of the pandemic have changed the identity of who is on the periphery. From nurses and physicals and all the staff of the medical world in need of extra precautions against Covid, to a financially stable family with a child who has asthma, to someone who is receiving some of the best medical care in the world, but requires quarantine before a surgery. And of course the older population…Suddenly people who are used to going to the periphery have become members of the periphery, closed off from a majority of relationships and often alone. My ministry certainly supports the health of my people, but it has always been apparent that we needed to support the mental and spiritual health as during this pandemic. 

However, we do not have the luxury of other parishes that could still use their large and spacious facilities. We do not have our own buildings. We do however lease a former bank building to use for an office and chapel and in that structure the parish leadership gathered in March to ask ourselves what we would do about how this pandemic was going to impact our community. We wanted to look at all the facts and were willing to recognize a path that required listening to each other and our differences. To cancel Mass at the time seemed incomprehensible but there we were as parish leaders making a very difficult decision. For our growing parish it would not only be the loss of the sacrament, but the loss of many new relationships that are vital to our companionship.

While there were numerous thoughts and emotions, everything seemed to turn when one of the parishioners told the story of her parents who were not worried about getting the virus and were going about life as normal until they discovered that their sick and elderly family member who lived in the same home could die if they unknowingly brought home the virus. At that realization this couple changed their way of life to accommodate precautionary measures. In this story I could see a pattern that happened over and over again: a person’s deepest thoughts and decisions became clearest when the possibility of life or death approached someone they loved. This contribution opened everyone up and provided a willingness to traverse together whatever might need to happen. The decision was made to suspend the public celebration of Mass. It was incomprehensible at the time but my thought was, “Lord even in this might you renew your people!”

When I woke up the first morning without a public Sunday Mass, I prepared to pray through Facebook Live and was hoping to reach all the people of my parish. While I was willing and eager to stay united electronically, my heart was not satisfied: something was missing. I thought, “they get to see my face, but I do not get to see theirs!” I wondered if people would come through the drive-thru so I could say hello and see their face too! I decided to invite everyone at the end of the broadcast to get in their vehicles and drive by for my blessing. It was a consideration, but as this thought hit me, I had an energy that came unexpectedly. I drove to the office that morning with an eagerness to share this possible ministry. The excitement transferred easily to the parish staff and within a few hours something new was born: “The Drive-Thru Ministry!” There was an explosion of ease and peace, and I felt like I was following Someone else’s work! Many vehicles arrived in the drive-thru that day and the faces were full of desire and joy and life.

What surprised me most was even with their windows up as they drove by me for a blessing, it was a way to be connected: we could see each other face to face. We also taught them about the old tradition of making the sign of the cross when passing a Catholic Church because Jesus is there in the tabernacle. Well when they drove through for my blessing, the tabernacle was on the other side of the wall so we taught them to make the sign of the cross any time they drove by. A reminder that Jesus is still among us in the Eucharist. I could see that the crisis brought about creativity, and the creativity did not end with my priestly blessing. Over the last six months we have handed out holy water bottles and taught parents to bless their children at night. We have handed out palms and had the children wave them out the widows as we celebrated Palm Sunday.

We are now back at the celebration of public Mass with many precautionary measures but it was immediately evident that there would always be a group of people who would not be able to attend the public Mass and some had now gone five months without the Eucharist, so it was decided that we would provide communion through the drive-thru. The encouragement was to watch us Live on-line and then right near then get in your car and meet me at the drive thru!

A woman wrote to me saying: “There are just no words how deeply grateful we are to be able to receive His Precious Body today for the first time in six months. I just feel like a different person. Thank you just does not seem enough to say. YOU made such a difference in our lives today. I have tears in my eyes. I thought I knew what I was missing by not being able to receive His Body on at least a weekly basis, but WOW what I felt on Sunday just blew me away.”

While my parish still does not have a church building, Life or death has come closer to me and from my heart has come a desire and God has answered my prayer to “renew His people!