Christian churches in the area and around the world are in the midst of their Holy Week worship rituals, culminating with Easter on Sunday.
It will be the second Easter Sunday of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Easter landed on April 12 in 2020 — near the start of the pandemic — and most churches held worship online. This year, area congregations are offering varied forms of in-person services, with a range of virus-related precautions in place. In interviews, local faith leaders spoke of being “creative” with how to safely hold worship and otherwise gather in community — and largely said their faith communities are feeling a renewed sense of hope due to rising vaccination tallies and falling case numbers.
“Last year, we had to celebrate the empty tomb with empty church pews,” said Phillip Bethancourt, senior pastor at Central Church. “That was hard for many of the churches in our area. I sense joy amongst our people that we can be gathered back together again this year.”
On Friday night, Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church of BCS held a drive-thru “Living Passion of Christ,” which the Rev. Elaine Gomulka described as “a pandemic-safe way to experience the Passion story.” The setup included several exhibits, more than 50 volunteers ranging in age from 2 to 82, and a live colt and donkey as part of the proceedings.
“We’re going to start with Palm Sunday and move through the Last Supper and arrest and denial, the crucifixion, all the way to the empty tomb,” Gomulka said in an interview in advance of the event. “Hopefully folks who need to stay safe and stay cloistered will find that as a powerful option.”
Gomulka and Greg Tivis, minister of music at Our Saviour’s, said the church turnout for its masked, in-person turnout worship has steadily grown recently as vaccinations have increased; Tivis said their online worship has reached “ a lot more people than we’ve ever reached before.”
“Some weeks, we reach up to 500 households,” Gomulka said of the church’s livestreamed worship. “We have people worshipping around the country and even as far away as Africa.”
Our Saviour’s will hold in-person Easter services Sunday morning at 8 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., with the latter service also airing online.
North Bryan New Birth Baptist Church sustained extensive flooding damage during last month’s winter storm. The Rev. Sam Hill, New Birth’s pastor, said Friday that though the church is still working through repairs, “things are going well” regarding the church community’s morale. The church leadership has strived to maintain frequent communication with members and keep prayer request lines active and up to date.
“We started, at the beginning of the pandemic, with the desire that we would break our church up into smaller sections and have deacons and associate ministers making contact with specific people,” Hill said. “We try to keep people connected with what’s going on at the church, and at the same time, we encourage everybody to just reach out to somebody. We knew early on that the biggest thing we’d be fighting against is for anybody to feel like they’re disconnected because of this.”
For Easter, New Birth will offer the option for people to drive to church and listen to the 10:30 a.m. service on the radio, Hill said, and will have drive-thru communion at 11:30 a.m. Sunday.
The Rev. Jennifer Webber, associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in Bryan, said Thursday that in addition to four indoor worship services, including one conducted in Spanish, FUMC Bryan will have an outdoor Easter sunrise service at which attendees are asked to bring their own lawn chairs.
“We are still going to have pews marked off for social distance — right now we’re going every other pew, and in the gym we space out our chairs,” Webber said. “There are many folks who continue to wear their masks, and if someone doesn’t, we respect their rights and understand that. People have been so gracious to one another.”
A year ago, Webber said, FUMC Bryan had Easter services online and returned to in-person services last summer.
“I see a revival of people in their spirit,” Webber said. “I’ve seen a lot of creativity from folks who said, ‘we’re going to find ways to meet with one another.’ We’ve had women in our church parking lot during COVID backing their car trunks up to one another, opening them and sitting out there and having coffee and donuts. People have said, ‘We’re not going to let COVID stop us; we’re going to be creative and figure out ways that we can fellowship and pray and study together.’ ”
The Rev. Dan De Leon, senior pastor at Friends Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, said Friends UCC will have two outdoor in-person services for Easter, at 9 and 11 a.m. Sunday, with distancing cones placed in advance. The church has mostly held worship on Facebook and YouTube during the pandemic, though more recently it has held outdoor services with masks required on the first and third Sundays of each month.
“Last year we were very much of a quarantining mentality — and that was our reality — and this year, we can do outdoor services,” De Leon said. “We’re trying to do just enough that we can actually have Easter and share joy and have community, but not so much that we’re being irresponsible and not being true to our faithful discipline of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves by continuing to wear masks and maintaining physical distancing.”
Bethancourt, Central Church’s senior pastor, said his church reopened in June last year with 50% occupancy, and will have in-person services at 9:30 and 11 a.m. Sunday with distancing protocols in place.
“Easter felt like the launch of a new season of isolation right at the start of lockdown — and now, a year later, Easter feels like the new season of celebration. We’re back to meeting together and there’s a sense of an increasing return to normalcy,” Bethancourt said. “I think there’s a spiritual significance to that,” Bethancourt said. “The isolation and longing that people felt over the last year is one of the reminders that we have in this world that this world was broken by sin, that we’re created for community, and when those connections are severed, it can often lead to new hardships. The chance to be back together to celebrate the resurrection of Christ — the centerpiece of the Christian faith — will have a new level of significance for us.”