By Jessica Brodie
AYNOR—A small-town pastor frustrated with COVID-19’s crimp on fellowship opportunities in her community has taken a cue from early Hebrew tradition.
The Rev. Kelly Snelgrove, pastor of Aynor United Methodist Church, encouraged her church to embrace old-fashioned outdoor gathering much like the Israelites, holding an on-campus Feast of Tabernacles after church last month.
As Snelgrove explained, the Feast of Tabernacles is a weeklong event also known as the Festival of Booths, Shelters or Tabernacles. The annual custom finds its origins in Leviticus 23:33-43, when God told Moses to have the people hold this festival every year, living in tents and other temporary shelters for seven days, as a way to remember their ancestors who lived in such shelters when the Lord brought them out of Egypt.
As God directed, “On the first day you are to take branches from luxuriant trees—from palms, willows and other leafy trees—and rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. Celebrate this as a festival to the Lord for seven days each year” (Leviticus 23:40-41a NIV).
Snelgrove got the idea from friends, who while camping had seen a group of Messianic Jews celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles.
“I realized everyone around here has tailgate tents,” Snelgrove said—it would be relatively easy to replicate.
After teaching about the meaning behind the festival, Snelgrove encouraged her congregation to make or bring tents to church Oct. 4, along with a picnic lunch, then gather after worship in family clusters for a church-wide lunch. Some brought store-bought tents, while others handcrafted their own with branches and leaves like the Jews would have done in the old times. Beneath their sukkah—single tent—each family talked, laughed, ate and waved hello to each other in an innovative way to gather in a pandemic.
“God likes to have fun!” she preached before the gathering. “He has a sense of humor. And He likes a great party.”
That, in essence, is the Feast of Tabernacles: a big party with God as the guest of honor.
Right now, Snelgrove said, the world is grieving and suffering with so much, from the pandemic to the economy and far more.
“But we have the best reason in the world to rejoice,” Snelgrove said, even in the midst of difficulty. “Trials and tribulations will come, but no matter what we go through, the Lord will never leave us or forsake us.
“The best way to get through any storm is to praise the Lord.”
A traditional sukkah has three sides and one opening, and the idea is it is intentionally open on one side to make it easy to invite friends and family passing by to come share in the feast. While public health concerns and social distancing hampered that aspect of the Feast of Tabernacles at Aynor UMC this year, they did their best in spite of it—and still had a lot of fun.
The children also got involved, handcrafting their own tabernacles out of popsicle sticks.
“Look at my tent!” one girl pointed excitedly, while a boy nearby narrowed his eyes in concentration as he carefully tried to assemble his own miniature hut.
Snelgrove watched and smiled, happy to see her congregation enjoy fellowship in the midst of COVID.
“We can’t have a covered-dish right now, but this is what we can do,” she said.