By Luke Sleeper
If you’re a resident of East Lansing, Mich, don’t be surprised if you drive past St. Thomas Aquinas Church and see a couple of cars parked suspiciously next to each other in the almost empty parking lot.
Odds are it’s Father Gordon Reigle in one of those cars. He’s likely administering the sacrament of confession to a parishioner sitting in their own car at least 6 feet apart. Reigle, the pastor of the Catholic church, refers to these meetings “car-fessions” — a chance for sins to be shared and for absolution to be offered, all according to CDC guidelines.
“Every confession looks like a drug deal,” Reigle said of the parking lot encounters.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has forced Reigle to get creative in the ways he can reach St. Thomas parishioners, car-fessions being Exhibit A.
For a diocesan priests like Reigle, careers are characterized by changing assignments. They grow accustomed to moving from one parish to another, having to forge new relationships with people, and then do it all over again. In 15 years as a priest, Reigle has spent time in four different diocese, in addition to serving as the Chaplain at Lansing Catholic High School for six of those years.
Being stuck inside is not exactly Reigle’s style.
Forced by COVID-19 to alter his interaction with parishioners, Reigle knew he had to get creative. “What can we do that’s just a little bit original?” he asked himself. The question has led to a variety of new services and entertainment being offered by St. Thomas.
At the beginning of the state’s shelter-in-place order, Reigle began filming a series of interviews with other priests and church staff. He calls them “Fireside Chats.” The videos give viewers an opportunity to get to know their priests, deacons and ministers on a more personal level, hearing their life stories. Folks can tune in through Facebook Live and are able to send in questions through the chat function.
On the church’s YouTube channel, Reigle, who has a background in music ministry, has posted videos of himself playing hymns on the piano. St. Thomas’ Director of Music Ministry, Alexandria Darley, sings alongside Reigle in the videos. Reigle said it has been fun trying to come up with new ideas for content.
Response to the videos and car-fessions has been positive, he said, as measured by letters and emails that Reigle and the other priests are receiving. “They know we’re sort of tap dancing over here,” he said of the parishioners. “Everyone has been wonderfully kind and generous.”
The church is beginning to open up to small groups of socially distanced people for adoration services, and Reigle hopes they are able to hold masses at 25 percent capacity soon. In the meantime, however, he will continue to post videos and hold car-fessions.