'A Special Place' Martinsville Easter Service Adapts for the Times
As the number of cases and deaths from coronavirus continues to rise, RADIO IQ has been on the look-out for stories of hope and resilience. That’s when a message popped up in our inbox, an invitation to a unique church service.
Mallory Noe-Payne has this dispatch from where southside meets southwest in Martinsville.
It’s predawn on Easter Sunday. Cars pull into the parking lot of a cemetery on the outskirts of town.
A man in a tie stays seated behind the wheel. A boy in pajamas presses his face against the window.
And a woman fixes her hair in the rear view mirror, puts on a face mask, and rolls down her window to ask a neighbor what radio station to turn on.
Slowly the sky lightens and the drive-in service begins.
For more than sixty years this community has held this sunrise service at the cemetery, says former City Councilman Danny Turner. He recalls playing on the outskirts as a kid, and standing shoulder to shoulder with others as an adult.
“This place holds a special place. Parents buried here. Grandparents buried here. Everybody in Martinsville’s got somebody buried here,” says Turner.
And although adjustments had to be made to keep people healthy, this year it seemed more important than ever to talk about hope.
“Hope springs eternal and spring’s a great time... it’s a rebirth,” Turner says. “You can see all the flowers and the leaves coming out.”
This was Pastor Charles Whitfield’s first Easter service in a cemetery. But he was happy to be a part of it.
“I think it’s a wonderful expression of our community that we still stand united even with everything that’s going on with corona,” says Whitfield.
Coronavirus cases haven’t been as widespread here as in other parts of the state, although testing hasn’t been either. According to the Department of Health, as of Sunday there were eight confirmed cases in surrounding Henry County and none in Martinsville proper. That’s compared to more than 2,000 in the Richmond and D.C. suburbs combined.
For a while, local restaurant owner Will Pearson thought it would be something he would just see on the news. Then the Governor announced restaurants would have to go take out only. Pearson says the last few weeks have been surreal.
“There was a payroll period actually I had to borrow money from my parents to make payroll. And it’s been extremely tough,” Pearson says. “Thank the lord for family, and friends and everybody chipping in.”
This Sunday he feels particularly blessed. Just a couple days ago he checked his account and found his request for federal payroll assistance had been processed. $40,000 thousand dollars in the bank, to keep his employees paid.
“I got to my computer and I turned it on and looked at the balance and I got to my knees and prayed,” he remembers.
Sharon Sleeper has also been working hard to keep her employees paid. A nurse for decades, Sleeper now owns a sewing business. They’ve pivoted quickly from dresses and aprons, to making masks and gowns.
They’ve distributed hundreds -- at-cost when people can afford it, and free when they can’t.
“When you’re a nurse for 30-something more years you’re always giving,” says Slepper. “As a seamstress I gave to make people feel happy… but now I feel like I’m kind of giving again.”
And that brings her comfort. It’s connection and hope in the most unlikely of times, and in the most unlikely of places -- a cemetery parking lot on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains.