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  1. Narratives

Before Sunday, Baptist minister asked God to ‘help me find the words’

In a time of fear and despair, he wanted to help his congregation feel less anxious about what’s happening and what’s ahead.
Pastor Randy Huckabee of First Baptist Dade City delivers a live-streamed service to a nearly empty sanctuary on Sunday. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

On Tuesday, after the governor’s press conference, pastor Randy started praying, “Dear Lord, please show me what to say.”

He had written most of his sermon weeks ago, part of a series of ruminations on the Bible, 1 Peter. This Sunday’s was supposed to be: “How do we win in the workplace?”

But after 88 more cases of the coronavirus spread across Florida that day, after the state shuttered all bars, after hearing talk of closing malls, movie theaters, even churches, Randy Huckabee knew he needed a new message.

How do you reassure your congregation in the midst of a growing pandemic?

What do you say to people who can’t visit their grandparents, take their kids to school, or, for many, even go to work?

How do you comfort those who ask if this is the beginning of the end of the world?

Please,” pastor Randy prayed in his office at First Baptist Dade City. “Help me find the words.”

***

Pastor Randy is 64, tall and trim, with thinning hair and horn-rim glasses. He grew up in North Carolina, where Andy Griffith was his hero, and has the same southern drawl as the TV sheriff. He calls Dade City, “The Mayberry of Florida.”

When he was young, Randy rode a Harley and trapped alligators. Now, he drives a Corvette Stingray with the license plate, “God’s Ray.”

He’s spent 42 years leading Baptist churches, the last seven in Dade City.

Normally, his flock averages 400. Last week, about 275 showed up. On Sunday -- by state order -- every church, mosque and synagogue was closed.

It had been live-streaming services for four years. But this would be the first time pastor Randy would speak to an empty sanctuary.

“The church isn’t brick and mortar,” said pastor Randy, whose own church is a sprawling brick building dating to 1955. “The church is the followers of Christ. Maybe this will bring people back to the old days of worshipping in their living rooms with their neighbors.”

Last week, First Baptist pastors started adding daily words of encouragement every morning to the church website and YouTube channel, reaching out to people by phone in the afternoons, going to elderly members’ homes to teach them how to see the services. A church broadcast Wednesday night drew 900 views.

“These are definitely some interesting days,” pastor Randy said during that broadcast.

In just a few days, he said, the coronavirus shut down what he called “the three false gods: finance, entertainment, sports.” Without those distractions, pastor Randy hopes, people might begin to realize what really matters -- and turn to faith.

“God is rocking our world right now. Something good is going to happen from all of this. It’s got to.”

All last week, parishioners kept calling pastor Randy, panicking about their parents, worrying they won’t be able to pay their bills, anxious that they can’t find toilet paper.

He kept praying for God’s guidance.

On the third day, he Googled.

***

Pastor Randy works on his sermon in his church office before the service on Sunday. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

The sanctuary lights were dim Sunday morning. No one needed them to read their Bibles. All 10 rows of gray chairs were empty, plus the choir section below the stained glass window. A singer and five musicians rehearsed on stage while technicians adjusted images on two screens.

In the center of the front row, pastor Randy sat alone, bent over his iPad.

His wife, a middle school reading teacher, had stayed home to learn how to Zoom. She had to figure out how to teach her students remotely. She had promised to watch her husband’s sermon on her computer.

After a couple of hymns, after the youth minister told a story for the kids at home and pastor Randy explained how to tithe online, he asked his virtual audience to bow their heads in prayer and thanked God, “in these uncertain times.”

Then he held up his worn Bible and told everyone to open theirs to Matthew 6. When he had typed “scripture” and “worry” into Google, that was the first thing that came up.

“I’ve seen a lot of anxiety over the last week,” he told the nine people spread throughout the church -- and whoever was watching online. “As we all find ourselves battling the storm of this coronavirus, we need to win the war of worry.” His father was a worrier, he said. And he used to worry himself into wicked migraines. “But the Bible says we were never meant to live one day in fear.” Fear comes from lack of faith, pastor Randy said. You have to have faith that God will take care of you, of everything.

He heard his voice echo and glanced up. Robert and Susie should be sitting there, he thought. Danny and Donna over there. And Jim and Linda, they’re always there. It felt so strange, speaking to vacant seats.

He talked about the biblical Daniel, who wasn’t afraid of being thrown into the lion’s den. He told the story of Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his son if that’s what God wanted. “You know why birds don’t have backpacks?” he asked. No one answered. “Because they know God will give them what they need to eat every day. If he does that for the birds, think what he will do for you.”

Pastor Randy’s voice rose. Worry makes you sick, he said. He raised both arms, then folded his hands in prayer. Worry robs you of your life.

God knew this pandemic was coming, the preacher said. He didn’t stop it. “What he’s teaching us now is to live for today,” he said, “because we might die tomorrow.”

Pastor Randy isn’t sure this is the beginning of the end, though the book of Revelation predicts lots of plagues. He couldn’t convince his flock that everything will be all right again in this world, so he turned to the next one -- which he thinks will look like the Augusta golf course. “We don’t know what heaven is going to be like,” he said in his sermon. “But we know it’s going to be amazing.”

Pastor Randy tried to reassure his followers - through live-streaming - that everything will be all right. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

***

On Sunday, after the virtual service, pastor Randy said he had missed having an audience. No one to laugh at his jokes. No one to echo, “Amen.”

Next weekend, he said, he wants to try something different, to help people feel less isolated -- including himself. The church owns 59 acres off State Road 52, which he thinks could be converted to a drive-in church. He asked his tech crew to plan a service there. At least everyone could wave from their cars and sing hymns out the windows.

“We’ll have to rig up a PA system and speakers, maybe even an FM radio station we could transmit to,” the pastor said. “It’s going to be a lot of things to figure out. A lot of work.”

But he’s not worried.

Contact Lane DeGregory at ldegregory@tampabay.com. Follow @LaneDeGregory.

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