In a year where COVID-19 has generated a laundry list of thou-shall-nots, Quest Church in El Cajon hit the pause button long enough to host a four-hour Halloween event designed to create sweet memories in the name of Jesus.
Harvest 2020, a modified, socially distanced version of its annual Harvest Festival, was presented Halloween night after receiving guidance and permits from the County of San Diego. The main event was a drive-thru Trunk or Treat.
“These guys really saved Halloween for the kids,” said Michael Reynolds, a Crest resident who brought his family to Harvest. “I really appreciate that.”
Halloween at Quest has become a tradition for Reynolds, his wife, Rebecca, and their two school-age kids. They have attended the event annually since its launch five years ago.
Because of social-distancing guidelines several of the main attractions, such as rock climbing, hay rides and carnival games were not available, but Reynolds said the modifications made up for it.
“The Trunk or Treat was fantastic,” he said. “You know, it’s probably the best it's ever been. The food trucks were excellent and I loved the coffee and the hot chocolate. This is a phenomenal event.”
His wife concurred.
“What a blessing for everyone,” she said. “It was definitely a highlight.”
The carefully orchestrated plans included a strategic row of decorated host cars that allowed families to either walk through on one side or drive by on the other. About 1,500 people—served by more than 100 volunteers—attended Harvest, with the line to enter stretching a quarter mile during a 90-minute peak time. As each car entered, they were gifted a bag with a Bible, candy, hand sanitizer and an invite for Christmas. Masks were also distributed for free.
Parents were grateful to have an outlet for their children since most events in the county had been canceled. At least one gated-community in a nearby neighborhood, usually an annual magnet for Supermen and princesses, was sealed off as security guards kept the children out.
In addition to the Trunk or Treat, the gathering offered live worship music, a puppet skit about fear, a double-feature drive-in using a pumpkin to share the gospel message and the Peanuts movie, “It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” The children also got a peek at several animals during a drive-by mini zoo by Cathy Ledford, owner of My Little Pony Rides.
The gathering started under a blue sky dotted with ribbons of high clouds, which eventually gave way to a jaw-dropping sunset of orange and fuchsia. Below it, families hunkered together on a green belt as scarecrow sentries stood guard. By nightfall kids were tossing glow rings and using light sabers for animated duels. Inflatable dragons duked it out for bragging rights.
Hay bales served as festive barriers to maintain social distancing as Quest members, masquerading as astronauts, storm troopers and other colorful guises, used decorated cardboard tubes—sugar shooters of sorts—to plunk confectionery loot into the buckets of costumed kiddos, many of whom were already munching on cotton candy or popcorn. Candy carts moved to and fro refilling 500 pounds of sweet delights.
Alisha, a resident of nearby Blossom Valley, had no idea what to expect when she brought her children to their first-ever Quest Halloween experience.
“We've been to Halloween carnivals before, but not like this,” she said. “It's very clever what the church did. I love the tubes, the hay. The whole thing is really well thought out and fun. “
Sherwood Patterson, the lead pastor at Quest, said his team worked diligently with county officials to win permission to host the event, despite the region’s strict coronavirus restrictions on large gatherings. The congregation’s goal, he said, was “to comply with the COVID guidelines and do it in a creative, fun, safe way for the community.
“Our interest was not to make a statement and to stand out from the crowd. Our desire has always been to leverage a global virus to make the gospel viral and to share it as quickly and as creatively as possible.”
Inspired by Mark Clifton, Director of Replanting with the North American Mission Board, Patterson said, “Our evangelistic outreach philosophy is that we don't do community outreach to get the people in the community into our church, we do community outreach to get the people in our church out into the community sharing the gospel. This is one effective way to do that.”
While the pastor was impressed with the turnout, he was most pleased by the gospel-centric environment.
“That is, by far, the most exciting for me because the basic level of everything that we do is to share the gospel with people and for them to encounter the hope and light of Jesus Christ,” Patterson said. “For us to infuse the gospel into each element ... that was something that I am very excited about. We like to say we'll do anything short of sin to reach one lost person for Christ.
“We believe the message never changes, our methods do. And COVID has taught us to really be flexible and change the methods of our ministry but keep the gospel at the center because the gospel is always good news.”
Having a hand in sharing the good news were Quest partners, the California Southern Baptist Association and the San Diego Southern Baptist Association, which provided outreach funds and a ministry trailer with machines to make popcorn and cotton candy, generators, power cords, projectors, screens and other resources. Local businesses provided gift cards, bottled water and other supplies.
Several vendors operated booths, including Mark Salazar with Christian Sports International, Josh McClure, of the East County Pregnancy Care Clinic, and Reuben Camarino and his Star Wars Universe.
“There was a sense, a real palpable sense, of people in our community who wanted to have an option, something safe for their kids for Halloween,” Patterson said. “For us, it's not about Halloween, it's about using whatever open doors we have to share the gospel and to bring people to Jesus. Halloween was just one of those open doors.”
Lori Arnold is a national award-winning journalist whose experience includes 16 years at a daily community newspaper in San Diego and 16 years as writer-editor for the Christian Examiner. She owns StoryLori Media and is a member of the Evangelical Press Association.