HOWARD, Pa. — The Sunday worship service began with a prayer thanking God for the chance to meet in a beautiful sanctuary.

Then the pastor prayed that the service would encourage members’ hearts and provoke their imaginations — and that “if we get wet, let us have fun.”

“If we fall in, we will remember our baptism this morning,” the Rev. Jes Kast said.

With that, the people of Faith United Church of Christ said, “Amen,” and launched their boats into the reservoir at Bald Eagle State Park.

Welcome to Kayak Church.

More than two dozen people joined the brightly colored flotilla on Sunday as Faith, like so many other churches across the country, dipped its toes into meeting in person after months apart during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

For some, it was the first time they had been together for worship in months.

“Isn’t it good to see people? It just feels good to be here together,” Kast said.

Since the pandemic prompted states to cancel large gatherings and issue stay-at-home orders this spring, congregations across the country have found creative ways to stay connected.

And so on Sunday, Kast found herself preaching from a kayak, tucked along the shoreline in a little cove not far from the boat launch.

She looked out on a congregation of worshipers in kayaks, canoes and paddleboards, surrounded by tree-covered mountains, a foreshadowing of fall in the air.

Kast’s message — an illustration drawn from Psalm 24 and from nature about how fire ants work together to survive in a disaster — was accompanied by the gentle splash of paddles, the buzz of insects and chirp of birds overhead.

The ants, she told the congregation, can’t survive on their own. Instead, they work together and help each other out so they can all thrive.

“We as a church are sticking together,” she said. “We’re helping each other out. We’re breathing together in our little pockets. We’re coming together as one to support and encourage each other.”

Worshiper Annette Hestres felt at home having church on the water.

Hestres had spent some time away from church before coming to Faith, she said. She recalled paddleboarding on a similar Sunday morning and thinking, “This is my church.”

Now here she was with Faith, which provided “nurturing” and a community she said she wouldn’t have had otherwise through the pandemic.

It was the pandemic that led Denise Alving, a graduate student at Penn State, to seek out a church.

“Everything gets slowed down a little, and you think about what’s important,” Alving said.

She had been attending Faith’s services online, she said.

On Sunday, she came to the state park with her friends and fellow graduate students, newlyweds Devyn McPheeters and Alex Sredenschek, who brought along the yellow Labrador, Luna, they were pet-sitting.

Luna laid contentedly at their feet at the bottom of the canoe they had rented from the park.

Her human companions were enjoying Kayak Church, too.

“We’re adventurous people so we like being out on the water. We were like, ‘Yes, let’s do that,’ because we’d get to see people and also get to have some fun,” McPheeters said.

For those who didn’t feel as comfortable in a kayak, the church also held its “traditional” Zoom service later that morning.

During the service on the water, the pastor asked people to call out their prayer requests as they paddled into the breeze to keep from being jostled into one another and pushed back to shore: for safe travels, for health, for everyone impacted by Hurricane Laura, an expression of gratitude for the sunshine.

“God, hear our prayer,” the kayakers chorused before joining in the Lord’s Prayer and doxology.

Kast read the poem “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver. It ends with the words, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?”

Kast also offered a brief benediction.

“Go in peace and kayak and canoe,” she said.

— Religion News Service