Trinity United Methodist Church, Waldo, where a drive-in church format will be held on Easter.
Trinity United Methodist Church, Waldo, where a drive-in church format will be held on Easter.

Precautions outlined to provide a sense of community while staying safely apart

A pastor in the village of Waldo, population 500, prays for good weather and a packed parking lot on Easter – even though her church will stay empty.

Worshippers at Trinity United Methodist, which has 84 members, will watch the Rev. Denise Kwiatkowski (kwai-at-KOW-ski) deliver her sermon outdoors, at the church carport. The service will be broadcast through a low-frequency FM radio transmitter as congregants follow along on the radio and stay inside vehicles, parked in a semicircle that faces the church.

The pastor says there is room for at least 50 vehicles.

“We have saved a parking place for YOU” is the church’s promise, in a newspaper advertisement. Take out “parking,” and you have the evergreen church motto that is posted online. 

Where’s Waldo? Roughly 45 miles north of Milwaukee, 10 miles east of Kettle Moraine State Forest, and 15 miles west of Kohler-Andrae State Park at Lake Michigan.

Kwiatkowski, a half-time minister, began leading Trinity’s flock almost four years ago, after she and husband Steve sold funeral homes that they operated in the Oshkosh area.

She is known for preaching barefoot, even in winter, saying “it’s a southern thing,” a reference to Kwiatkowski’s southern Illinois roots. She likely will keep her shoes on for the Easter service, unless the weather warms, and is more concerned that nasty weather could drench others’ enthusiasm for the unorthodox gathering.

The Rev. Denise Kwiatkowski of Trinity United Methodist Church in Waldo.

Despite its modest size, Trinity was ahead of the technology curve long before COVID-19 became a worry. Livestreaming of 9:30 a.m. Sunday services on Facebook began two years ago.

So why work so hard to orchestrate parking lot worship on Easter? 

“People are missing their personal connection with church, and people are bored,” Kwiatkowski said. “People are more likely to look to God for help when the world is topsy turvy.”

Peruse the church website, and you’ll see that she believes “for every roadblock, the Lord has provided a better lit path” and that “I don’t have all the answers.” Kwiatkowski also acknowledged “there are so many ways to minister right now.” 

The pastor raves about church members who routinely step up for a greater good. Proceeds from cookie walks to chili suppers, around $3,500 in 2019, help local charities. Those attending the Easter service will bring food pantry donations.

Palm Sunday was Trinity’s first parking lot service, which included communion that was distributed in little bags, each containing a sip of grape juice in a lidded condiment cup and morsel of bread in a sandwich bag. All was packaged by volunteers wearing protective gear, Kwiatkowski said.

Her church is the kind of place where, under normal circumstances, visitors are encouraged to have a cup of coffee or juice before sitting wherever it feels comfortable. “We will NOT single you out publicly or ask you to say anything.”

Trinity United Methodist Church photo

“Trinity” refers to the Holy Trinity of Christianity, plus the blending of three small-town congregations – from Cascade, Hingham and Waldo – in 1977. Waldo was the central point, geographically, so a new church for all was constructed there with a tower that anchors three bells, one from each community. 

By 1987, building debt was paid and the mortgage burned. 

A stained-glass window from the old Waldo church was moved into the new house of worship. Also inside is an old oak pew, resurrected 24 years after it was auctioned and nearly forgotten while in storage. 

The congregation’s first inclination was to slather on layers of polyurethane and use the pew as an outdoor bench. Then they concluded the easier solution was not the best.

“When a beautiful wood grain was discovered under the old finish,” the pastor wrote online, “it was decided that this bench needed refinishing and an inside home.” 

A trio of volunteers invested 30 hours to strip the pew to its bare oak grain. Then came 10 hours of sanding and five more to stain, varnish and seal the furniture.

It is yet another example of Trinity’s generous spirit. Ask Kwiatkowski if her work is truly part time, and the response is this: “Sure, I give the church extra hours, but so does my congregation.”