The Feast of Tabernacles in 2020 was certainly “A Feast Like No Other,” as Pastor Phil Sena explained in his sermon by that name posted on LCG.org. As the Feast drew near, entire countries, such as Trinidad and Tobago, the Philippines, and Nigeria, were still in lockdown. In the Australian state of Victoria, brethren were not allowed to travel more than five kilometers from their homes. The Canadian province of Quebec tightened meeting regulations and actually closed borders just 24 hours before the Feast. This made it impossible to hold the Feast as planned in Drummondville, Quebec, Canada. In the Caribbean, the Montego Bay, Jamaica site closed at the last minute, but the brethren were able to relocate to a venue in Ocho Rios.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, shutdowns threatened the Royal Leamington Spa in the United Kingdom at the “eleventh hour” because of a misinterpretation of lockdown orders. Just a few miles away, the venue manager successfully appealed to local government officials so that the Dunchurch, U.K. site could proceed. Lockdowns were in force in Latin America, so only four Feast sites were able to meet in person: Punta Leona, Costa Rica; San Ignacio, El Salvador; Cuba; and Puerto Rico. And even at one of those four, brethren attending at Punta Leona, Costa Rica, had to brave protests and road closures to get to the Feast. Other brethren in Latin America—about 530 of them—were able to watch Feast services at home online or meet in small groups.
In the Northwest corner of the United States, there were also challenges leading up to the Feast at the site in Florence, Oregon, as reported by Festival Site Coordinator Brandon Fall: “In the months leading up to the Feast of Tabernacles, we didn’t know exactly what to expect. In the west we had riots in Portland and Seattle, challenging Oregon COVID regulations, and horrible fires that put brethren on call for evacuation…. Everything seemed like it was up in the air.”
Truly, the Feast of Tabernacles 2020 arrived under less-than-ideal circumstances! The ministry was charged with organizing the Feast all over the world while juggling huge challenges and constantly shifting conditions. Yet, through it all, God blessed the Feast, providing a way for 11,183 Living Church of God attendees and guests to be able to worship Him in person or online. And according to many, it truly was a memorable Feast!
Perhaps the Feast of Tabernacles 2020 was unforgettable for you. But why? Was it only because of the lockdowns and masks? Was it because of the unusual circumstances and restrictions? Or was there something else that will always mark this year’s Feast in your mind in a positive way for years to come?
One reason this year was so remarkable was that, despite daunting challenges and obstacles, God provided encouragement and inspiration in unusual and unexpected ways. Yes, there were difficulties. There were uncomfortable regulations and logistical challenges. There were unusual restrictions. But in many ways the Feast exceeded expectations for many brethren. Many positive comments were expressed in the online Feast survey filled out by 1,471 Living Church of God Feast attendees and guests attending in 59 different countries. Others were submitted by Feast Coordinators in their post-Feast reports.
In the remainder of this article, let’s review some of those unusual joys God showered upon His people in 2020. It truly was a year of unexpected blessings!
The Spiritual Blessing of “Just Being There”
At many Feast sites around the world, brethren faced COVID screening, mask orders, and prohibition of singing in public groups. Feast site seating capacities limited by local regulations meant most Feast sites were unusually small. In Taupo, New Zealand, part of the congregation had to meet separately for much of the Feast. Festival Coordinator Paul Kearns explained, “We had to separate Aucklanders from those outside of Auckland within the meeting room for the first five days of the Feast, until these restrictions were lifted for the final few days.” In Florence, Oregon, venue social distancing requirements meant that the congregation was divided into two groups meeting by alternating between “on” and “off” days. The Ontario, Canada brethren were forced to meet in four different small groups to comply with local regulations: Kingston, Lindsay, Grand Bend A, and Grand Bend B. At the Poconos, Pennsylvania, Feast site, being split up meant being in nine different rooms with no more than 25 people in each, because of state and venue regulations. In Traverse City, Michigan, the same was true—with an even more extreme government limitation of no more than ten in any indoor room! However, an outdoor tent meant that 100 brethren could participate together in services outside. According to the Feast survey, many brethren took the inconveniences in stride. As one Feastgoer commented, “Sitting outside in a tent in cold weather was viewed as a treat for most who were there.… It provided a space for fellowship and we all found joy in the little things this year.”
In spite of all of these unusual circumstances, many brethren expressed something similar to what one member noted in Midway, Utah: “With the difficulties we’ve all had during 2020, it was a blessing just to have the Feast.” As Magaliesburg, South Africa, Festival Coordinator Roger Herbert observed, “The fact that brethren could assemble and fellowship after a hard lockdown of more than six months during which there were no services was a definite highlight.” Liverpool, Nova Scotia, Canada Coordinator Shane Kruse commented, “It seems that this year everyone learned to be thankful just to be able to come and be present at the Feast.”
Encouraging and Inspiring Messages
We go to the Feast to “learn to fear the Lord [our] God always” (Deuteronomy 14:23). The eight days spent at the Feast of Tabernacles and Last Great Day are designed to give us much to ponder during the coming months. It should give us a jumpstart—“fill our tank”—and inspire us to carry on in God’s way. It should renew our zeal and sharpen our focus, as a Feastgoer in Grand Bend B, Ontario, Canada, commented: “Honestly, the sermons, sermonettes, and Bible Study were my highlights.… The ‘first love feeling’ I had for the first few years after I came into the Church is revived by the things I learned at the Feast this year.”
This year, the backdrop of political chaos and division all around us seemed to add extra urgency and weight to the message of the Feast. We come to the Feast to be lifted up, and many brethren experienced that in a profound way that was, perhaps, unique to this year. As one attendee in Boerne, Texas, commented, “This Feast was excellent. The messages were positive and encouraging.” Just a few hundred miles south, in South Padre Island, Texas, another member commented, “This was by far the best Feast I’ve ever attended. Mr. Weston’s opening night message really helped set the tone. Plus, all of the leaders and brethren really seemed focused on what the Feast was REALLY about.”
In Mr. Weston’s Opening Night message, he encouraged us to think about lessons we’ve learned from past Feasts. What about now, several months after the Feast of 2020? Can we look back and point to specific things the spiritual messages taught us about God’s way and our role in His coming Kingdom? Even as the Feast of 2020 recedes further and further into our memories, let’s remember the spiritual lessons we took from that extraordinary year.
Focus on a Meaningful Balance of Activities
Each year, Feast activities are organized to bring brethren together to forge new bonds and deepen friendships. But “activity for activity’s sake” is not the focus of the Feast. It’s not just about having as much fun as possible and then dropping from exhaustion! Yet, if we’re not careful, as carnal human beings, it’s easy to do just that.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic meant fewer activities. For many brethren, the slower pace was a breath of fresh air and a blessing. It meant more time to think, digest the messages, and even rest. It meant a more spiritually rewarding Feast. One member in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada said this: “Sometimes the activities become the focus and you hardly have time to meet with people when everyone’s leaving to do this or that. I really liked the suggestion of Mr. Weston this year, that activities be minimal.” This was an oft-repeated sentiment at the Feast, as Port Shepstone, South Africa Feast Coordinator Christo Botha noted: “Brethren stated they preferred the more peaceful Feast without having to attend too many activities.”
As they could, coordinators scheduled limited organized activities to bring the Church family together in a safe and uplifting environment, but at a slower pace. Some activities included visits to nature parks, educational tours to historical sites, or outdoor picnics and barbecues, such as the one held at Langebaan, South Africa. As Feast Site Coordinator Lawdi Ferreira explained, “There was a men’s BBQ and ladies’ evening arranged by members.… This was a highlight where everyone spent quality fellowship time together and got to know each other better in a proper South African way around a BBQ fire.” In Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Festival Coordinator Bob Rodzaj arranged a Hospitality Room, “where members could informally gather to reconnect at the end of the day before retiring to their rooms.” And in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, one enterprising and generous couple sponsored and ran an impromptu birdhouse-making activity for brethren.
The COVID-19 crisis surely required creativity on the part of Festival Site Coordinators in responding to local conditions and bringing brethren together who were separated physically. Coordinator Arius Nusantara noted that while the brethren in Indonesia met in separate localities, Villa Bagoes, Batu, and East Java, “We tried to entertain one another, both [those] staying at the Feast sites and [those] at home, by sending videos to one another to share the excitement of every activity.”
Perhaps an unexpected blessing of Festival 2020 is that, through being forced to alter our schedule of activities, maybe we can all start to gain a little more perspective on what activities are for in the first place.
If you were to pick an optimal time for God to call new brethren into the flock to attend His Feast, would you choose the year of a pandemic? Not likely! Yet, this year, many new brethren attended their first Feast and expressed their gratitude and thankfulness for becoming part of the Church family despite the inconveniences of a Feast during a pandemic.
One site, Langebaan, South Africa, had nine new attendees. A new attendee in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada noted, “I found the entire experience of my first FOT to be tremendously uplifting! The fellowship of the brethren and their obvious love for one another is profound!” In New Bern, North Carolina, another first-time Feast attendee said, “This was the first Feast for my wife and I, and it was extremely enjoyable.… What an experience, when your heart and mind has been exposed to the truth.”
In St. Augustine, Florida, another first-time Feastgoer said this: “This was my first Feast ever, and I was baptized!... I am beyond grateful.… It was an incredible experience and I will never forget it.” A few other brethren at other sites were also baptized at the Feast because of the timing of their counseling. While setting is not the crucial aspect of baptism—as the account of the Ethiopian eunuch brings out (Acts 8:36)—it was a joyous occasion for those who made this commitment during the Feast of Tabernacles.
The Living Church of God also had new attendees coming from other Church of God groups in 2020. Here are comments from a couple who were observing their 48th Feast but their first with the Living Church of God (Florence, Oregon): “This is our first Feast with LCG, having left another COG group a few months ago. We felt warmly welcomed from every direction, well served by both the ministry and the brethren, and inspired and assured by the very solid and grounding messages.” Another first-time attendee at that site said this: “This was my first Feast with LCG, and it was the best Feast I have ever had. The quality of messages and the genuinely kind and caring nature of all the people I met truly made this a wonderful experience. I learned a lot.”
Health and Protection
In the midst of the pandemic, many brethren appreciated the care everyone took to guard one another from getting or spreading the virus. One member attending in Hickory, North Carolina, commented, “I felt comfortable being at the Feast due to the diligence of the ministry in providing a hall where we felt secure: spacious and with enough social distancing that we were not crowded.” This was echoed by a Feastgoer in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, Canada, who initially was quite concerned about the virus: “Everything went well, even though there were concerns of COVID-19. My spouse and myself were concerned of catching it. The staff and the congregation… did a wonderful job.”
One of the ways of combating the COVID-19 virus was social distancing during services. For some sites, this meant having brethren sit in the same seats each day for logistical reasons. But even this measure turned out to be an unexpected blessing, as many expressed how much they liked the “assigned seats.” As one member in Gatlinburg #1, Tennessee, noted, “The unfortunate circumstances of the pandemic required assigned seating; however, brethren did find it stress-free, the fact that they had stable seating awaiting them each day with their families.”
A few brethren did catch the virus during the Feast. As Mr. Weston mentioned in his video update on October 30, “We did have several areas where people did come down with COVID. We don’t know whether it was actually during the Feast or after.… But, from everything that we hear, most of them are recovering just fine. They had very light to mild symptoms, or even no symptoms at all but they tested positive. There are one or two people who I have heard are having a little bit more of a difficult time with it.… So, although we did have a few cases of COVID, those are getting past, and we’re very thankful for that.”
In regard to the COVID-19 virus and illnesses in general, God did bless the Living Church of God at the Feast in 2020. In fact, one of the common observations by coordinators in 2020 was the lack of general sickness. As Traverse City, Michigan, Feast Coordinator Bill Long noted, “The most common remark that brethren have made about this year’s Feast is that no one came down with any illnesses. I believe this was a blessing and the result of wearing masks indoors. It seems every year there is a sickness that occurs during the Feast, but not this year.”
Smaller Sites, Greater Service
When we decided this year to limit transfers in order to have smaller and more local Feast sites, some understandably expressed disappointment. But that decision brought an unexpected blessing for many. For example, 2020 is the first time in 17 years that the Feast was held in Puerto Rico. Bunbury, Western Australia, was also a Feast site, and as one member commented, it was “no more than two hours away for any member and this was a big plus.”
Smaller, more localized Feast sites also gave brethren the opportunity to get to know local brethren in a way they previously hadn’t. As one member in Branson #3, Missouri, stated, “Being with our own congregation brought unity and opportunity to get to know brethren in our congregation better.” A Feastgoer in Grand Bend A, Ontario, Canada explained, “The BIGGEST highlight of the Feast was being a smaller group so that fellowship was much easier, and with only a week it gave more time to get to know more brethren individually.” Another Feastgoer in Gatlinburg #2, Tennessee, made the same observation: “Many brethren have been attending the Church for several years or decades and have never met a lot of the brethren from their sister congregations just three or four hours away.”
In a local congregation, we get to know each other each Sabbath when we meet. But the Feast inspires fellowship on an entirely different level! It’s eight days of being together every day, and many were delighted to discover the benefits of staying local. Smaller, more local Feast sites also gave many brethren a greater opportunity to serve, such as in Mur de Bretagne and Carry-le-Rouet, France. Festival Coordinators Simon Roberts and Jean-Luc Pirotte noted, “With more opportunities to serve in smaller sites, it provided a deeper understanding for those involved of Acts 20:35, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” This was encouraging to see, as one Feastgoer in Natchez, Mississippi, noted: “We really enjoyed being able to hear men from local congregations speak more than they usually would. The fellowship was more special than usual.”
With 2020 being such an unusual year, it was really up to all of us to “step out of our comfort zones” and go above and beyond to make the Feast work. This was reflected in comments from a member attending in Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia: “This year’s Feast of Tabernacles was uplifting in so many ways.... it was so encouraging to see the warm family atmosphere created by everyone. People stepped out of their comfort zones to serve in new ways and many sacrificed to help others.”
Being in a small site and closer to home wound up being a blessing for some local shut-ins as well. In Roswell, Georgia, brethren attending the Feast made a special trip to local shut-ins: “We took each of them a basket of goodies. The joy that they felt when we showed up cannot be put into words.… One of the shut-ins said that she would never forget it. [Another shut-in] has never been able to attend services, and he was happy to meet some of his brethren.” In another case, in Branson #1, Missouri, one member drove five and a half hours to pick up another member who hadn’t been able to attend the Feast in two years! He was overwhelmed and grateful, noting that “God’s people never fail to reach out and help those who need it. What a blessing.”
Mr. Weston, in his member letter of May 11, 2020, exhorted us all that because of less transferring, many of us would have more funds available to help others financially. Many brethren took this to heart. Langebaan, South Africa Feast Coordinator Lawdi Ferreira observed, “Some members were financially challenged this year due to cuts in income. It was wonderful to see how John 13:35 was applied in a greater scale where members would share accommodations, share transport, lend out extra cars to those do not have transport…. those who had more to give were helping others who had less. COVID brought many companies down but strengthened God’s family and brought them more closely [together] as a strong, unified, faithful group who love God and love neighbor.”
The Blessing of Technology
This year brought unusual challenges in trying to link together services and brethren via technology. Internet livestreaming and telephone connections, while not as good as being present in person, proved a wonderful tool to connect those who couldn’t attend. In Trinidad, where brethren were not able to meet together, one of the brethren explained how encouraging it was to be able to connect online: “The highlight of the Feast this year was the role of technology, the Internet in particular.” One of the shut-ins in Midway, Utah, wrote of her gratitude for the daily connection to services: “The messages that were delivered were the strongest we have heard in several years! I had to stream in this year, BUT it was sooo encouraging—and gave much food for thought and personal Bible studies!”
Jeffreys Bay, South Africa Feast Coordinator Lawdi Ferreira noted, “Daily services were received through the webcast from the Langebaan Feast site. It was wonderful to be part of the online services even though we were 800 kilometers apart.” As Porto-Novo, Benin Feast Coordinator Rees Ellis noted, commenting on the French livestream linking 16 French-speaking congregations all over Africa and Europe, it was a treat “being in communion with other French-speaking sites connected to services in France.” French services were also livestreamed in the Western Hemisphere, connecting brethren in Quebec, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, and French Guiana.
Many had the special opportunity to be in the virtual adults’ and children’s choirs or to be involved in other special music throughout the Feast of Tabernacles. As one member in Natchez, Mississippi, noted, “I loved the virtual adult choir. It was so moving it made me cry.” In Tupelo, Mississippi, another Feastgoer echoed that, saying, “I would like to say how much I loved hearing the special choir, it was wonderful. I had tears in my eyes hearing the children sing.”
Spanish-language services were conducted in New Bern, North Carolina, and streamed to almost 600 Spanish-speaking brethren! Festival Site Coordinator Cristian Orrego noted, “All small groups were asked to send a short video of no more than 30 seconds showing where they were and sending a greeting to the rest of the brethren. During the announcements in each service we showed five or six of these short videos and it was really motivating to see and hear from so many people from different places in the world sending their messages of encouragement, joy, and faith.” Internet livestreaming was a blessing that was used to unify God’s people all around the globe.
Relief and Vision
In the midst of a pandemic that has gone hand-in-hand with political chaos, violence, and strife, the Feast of Tabernacles 2020 was a welcome relief for many of our brethren. Whether it gave the opportunity to watch a sunset over the harbor in Port Macquarie, New South Wales, Australia, or view beautiful Lake Victoria in Ukerewe, Tanzania, the Feast provided a peaceful and tranquil environment for God’s people. But even more importantly, the spiritual messages and uplifting fellowship were refreshing and unifying, and those who couldn’t attend in person were not left out. Festival 2020 was an inspiring and meaningful time to grow and deepen relationships with one another and with God. As one Feastgoer in Bangor, Northern Ireland noted, “All the fruits of God’s Spirit were very evident at this Feast. These far outweighed anything else. It is a Feast I will always cherish.”
What will you take forward with you? Perhaps you will sum it up like one member in Williamsburg, Virginia: “Although COVID-19 is real and dangerous, I truly believe God allowed His people to use it as an opportunity to draw closer together spiritually while still maintaining ‘social distancing.’ 2020 was a wonderful Feast for me.”