Though fear of the rapidly spreading coronavirus has driven many indoors, and caused countless events to cancel across the region, the energy outside of Thomas Road Baptist Church was closer to that of a tailgate.
Thousands gathered for the annual Ignite Men’s Impact Weekend on Saturday morning, and the parking lot was teeming with people cooking meat, manning booths and playing a few spirited games of cornhole.
While the virus was on many people’s minds, indicated by a noted avoidance of shaking hands and an abundance of travel-size hand sanitizers, men in line outside of the worship center largely were offering a single refrain: They weren’t worried enough not to come.
Some conference goers, like Randy Stackpole, from Loudoun County, said though he recognizes the potential for exposure, he is not in the high-risk group.
What he stands to gain from a conference like Ignite, he said, is worth a few weeks of sickness.
The sold-out conference, hosting speakers like Tim Tebow and Marcus Luttrell, was created to “help man take back their Biblical manhood.” With workshops centered around topics like self-defense, hunting, motorcycles and faith, the event sold more than 5,000 tickets.
“You can’t live life frightened. You can’t be scared,” said John Stiltner, an Isle of Wight County resident, who was waiting to enter the morning’s main session in the Thomas Road Baptist Church Worship Center.
The auditorium was a full house, with additional chairs arranged behind the stadium seats and a line snaking to the main entrance.
Commenters on the Ignite Men’s Ministry Facebook page voiced concern surrounding the conference organizer’s refusal to cancel — with many mentions of frustrations that tickets were not being refunded.
To appease some concerns, Ignite offered a livestream of plenary sessions to ticket holders, and issued a statement on its website the organization is implementing recommendations from the Virginia Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Event organizers declined to give comment at the conference and instead directed any questions to the posting on Ignite’s website.
Despite online comments indicating many ticket-goers would not be attending the conference, attendees like Stiltner said the turnout looked comparable to previous years.
Travis Haynes, from Galax, was waiting in line with his sons, John, 12, and Grayson, 10. Like Stiltner, Haynes said they would not live in fear.
“We’re trying not to panic and maintain a reasonable head,” Haynes said. He taught his sons precautions — such as washing hands, elbow high-fives and covering their mouths when they cough.
Grayson Wise, of Bedford County, was manning one of the dozens of booths lining the lobby of the church. He said he had a couple of friends who decided not to come to the conference because of the virus, but he was glad the fears did not discourage many.
“Despite the virus, I’m glad everybody is still coming out,” Wise said.
Undeterred by warnings large gatherings could facilitate the spread of the virus, many people drove in from out of town, like Steve Treadway, from Dawson, West Virginia, who comes every year with his church.
“Everywhere you look, on your phone, on the news, it’s all bombarded. It’s overrated. It’s over- exaggerated. It’s bad news, so the media loves it. But it doesn’t concern me,” Treadway said. “It’s blown out of proportion.”
As attendees made their way into the large auditorium, the mood was buoyant.
Robert Payton, of Stafford, said he was looking forward to “the words, some nuggets from God.”
“I had already registered,” Payton said. “And I’m not going to let the enemy keep me in the house in fear.”
Sarah Honosky covers Appomattox and Campbell counties at The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5556.