Roadside worship: Dalton, Ga., church offers drive-through prayer

Roadside worship: Dalton, Ga., church offers drive-through prayer

September 16th, 2013 by Jeff LaFave in Local Regional News

IF YOU GO

What: Drive-through prayer and worship

Where: Cedar Valley Cathedral of Praise, 2744 Cleveland Highway, Dalton

When: 2 to 5 p.m each Sunday

Church leader Barry Suggs, right, and other members of the Cathedral of Praise provide a drive-through prayer service for driver Anne Keith and friends at the Cedar Valley Cathedral of Praise. Suggs said, "We want the people to see what the Lord is doing, not us or the church."

Photo by C. B. Schmelter/Times Free Press.

DALTON, Ga. - Be sure to drive carefully through the Cedar Valley Cathedral of Praise's parking lot. Most visitors have tears in their eyes.

The Dalton, Ga., church started an unconventional drive-through worship ministry in May. Since then, members of the congregation and strangers alike have taken time on a Sunday afternoon to pull off Cleveland Highway for a moment of prayer.

Vehicles park under the church's loading bay. Then one or two volunteers come up on either side to talk and pray with whomever's inside.

The whole program is handled by a tight-knit group of eight volunteers.

"It's the most rewarding thing I've ever done for the Lord," volunteer Shannon Ramsey said. "It's amazing that people will come, and they will start crying before they come up here to pray."

The front-seat services are intimate and private, and the engine acts as a sound barrier to the discussions within. The drivers come with their share of worries: Financial problems. A son going down the wrong path. Health issues.

"One man came in last Sunday and let us know he is now cancer-free," said Barry Suggs, Ramsey's husband and a teacher at Cedar Valley.

The church's unlikely approach to praise started after a revival when a visiting evangelist suggested the drive-through to engage the community. Each aspect of the prayer experience is designed to be more casual, from roadside sign-holders to the neon-colored T-shirts with the message, "Jesus is Life."

Suggs spearheads the carside salvation services. On Sunday, he pulled his baby-blue T-shirt over his Sunday-best navy pants and dress shoes. As visitors opened their windows, he opened his Bible.

Suggs says more than 26 people have been saved in the weekly meetings.

"We help people depending on what they need," Suggs said. "It depends on the Lord. It seems to be more and more progressive."

Dalton native Anne Keith is the first in line every Sunday with her gray Jeep Cherokee. She brings friends and family members. When the church expanded the vehicular service to Saturdays, she lined up for those as well.

Sunday, she rolled into the lot at 2:01 p.m.

"She's our drive-through mascot," Ramsey joked.

The experiment serves a dual purpose, Ramsey said. It provides another way for faithful residents to practice, and gives people who aren't entirely comfortable with churches a chance to dip their toe in the water.

"I can't tell you how many people won't come to the church, but they come here for prayer," Ramsey said. "There are so many people that are hurting in this world, and they just need someone to care."

Thousands of drivers along Cleveland Highway see churchgoers holding "Prayer Here" signs along the road. Passengers of cars wave. Drivers in semi-trailers honk. Some people yell "praise God" out the window. And occasionally, there's a middle finger.

"You just pray for them anyway," Ramsey said. "There's so much darkness in the world, people don't recognize it anymore."

As each personalized prayer service comes to an end, Suggs hands out pieces of red fabric -- prayer cloth -- and sends them on their way. A handful will return for weekly church services, but the idea remains to give the community another chance to feel connected on the spiritual level.

The church will be open for cars until further notice.

"We're committed until the Rapture," Ramsey said. "We're going to be out here no matter what."

Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at jlafave@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.