Thirteen people. Nineteen if you count the kids that piled into the nursery with their juice boxes and tablets. With hushed discomfort and wide eyes, we kissed their foreheads and then tried our best to stand at least a few feet apart in the lobby while we waited for our meeting to begin. I tried to give a good friend a side hug, and then quickly remembered to use my elbows. Yes, elbows are the new hugs.

The meeting began and we shuffled (while distancing) to sit in separate rows so that our pastor could explain the restrictions around our opening procedures. The discussion included safety measures cushioned by laughs amongst dear friends who deeply missed being in the physical presence of one another.

Years from now when I think of this extraordinary blot on our lives, I’ll always recall this church’s sense of community. When thoughts of masks and toilet paper shortage ring in the heads of many, and the realistic fear that may always be a part of us now, I’ll still cling to the love — the love in the time of COVID. I’ll tell my children’s children the story of how my church handled COVID.

“You see, kids. It all started with a van and ended with a tornado.”

Since 2012, Providence Church (Summerville, South Carolina) has had a van ministry which we’ve used to pick up a gaggle of kids from a nearby community. Their ages range from diapered and barefoot to pre-teens in the thick of rebellion and angst. We picked them up from porches, meeting them exactly where they were and delivered them (by way of van) to the feet of Christ. This van was stolen Easter of 2019, but we never stopped picking up the kids. Instead, we amped up our ministry and had a team of people safely bring them to church using their own cars.

Fast forward to the summer of 2019. Someone donated a 21-passenger charter bus. It needed some love, but we got it going. When the community impact of COVID-19 happened and churches across the globe had to close their physical doors and open virtually, hearts in the sanctuary were inspired with new ministry ideas. These kids were on our minds from day one. Their spiritual and literal nourishment was top priority. Our pastor, Rev. Wayne Otto and his wife, Amy, began picking up lunches from the schools and bringing them to the kids so that they didn’t miss out on lunch time. After a few days of delivering lunches, the schools informed Pastor Wayne and Mrs. Amy that the kids had to be present for them to pick up the meals. So again, the ministry team got to work and picked up kids.

Easter of 2020 was virtual and successful, but the next day brought in tornadoes. Pastor Cheyenne Bayles and Rev. Orville Williams (both assistant pastors at Providence) along with Williams’ wife, Nadine, and two kids reside in the church parsonage. The way Cheyenne explains it, “Nadine went to wake her son, but he couldn’t hear her over the wind. The energy shifted in the house. My ears popped and the entire house was shaking. If you looked out the front door, all you could see was white. We hid in the lower part of the house to ride it out.”

The tornado brought down a fence along the property line, along with 30-40 trees, and broke a gate off its hinges. It also landed a tree directly through the window of the 21-passenger charter bus.

Something Nadine’s daughter, Kezia, said stands out to Cheyenne. When they were hiding, Kezia asked her mom to pray because she was too scared to think of the words. The Lord picked up those trees and moved them around the property, but the sanctuary, parsonage and lives were spared.

Sixty people from the congregation came out that same day to help clean up — staying six feet apart. It ended up being a beautiful day, with many people feeling uplifted by the sight of their friends. But people were also encouraged that the church was okay, and they were able to serve in some capacity. I’ve never seen so many people so eager to sweat and lift tree branches. I’ll never get the image out of my mind.

When our staff had the first in-person meeting to discuss re-opening, the bus and the kids were two of the bigger topics. Given the required precautions, we asked one another: how can we make sure these kids are still part of our church? In the short-term, we will be bringing church to them via backyard Bible study. In the long-term, be it bus, van or our minivan, these kids will be in the front row of the sanctuary for worship.

First John 3:18 says “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” The chapter starts by saying that the Father has lavished love on us, and we are his children. It goes on to explain how to be like Christ and how to lay down our lives for brothers and sisters.

Cheyenne tells me about when the kids won a pool party for remembering their Bible verses. One of the kids, Jaja, couldn’t swim. Cheyenne said, “Okay, jump, and I promise I’ll catch you.” After a few head shakes and giggles, he trusted and jumped.

We are here to walk alongside our community in all areas of their Christian path. Teaching them first to float, but then next to jump and trust. No one should miss out on the love of Jesus. These kids crave church more than many pastors’ kids. There is a big chance that the world will get ahold of them, but through relationship and community, Jesus may just get ahold of them first.

So, when I think of this wild year, I will think of 1 John 3: remembering how Christ has called us to love. Even in the time of COVID.

Kelly Yonce is a wife, mom to four, published author and serves as the social media and communications pastor at Providence Wesleyan Church.