In this strange spring season, the uplifting sense of renewal is mix ed with a feeling that something is out of joint. It’s especially jarring, among all the other ways things feel abnormal, that no one can go to church for Easter Sunday services.
Actually, a few ministers will be in church, along with some help for musical accompaniment. But the vast majority of congregants will be sitting at home, many of them watching Easter services on their devices or listening to them by phone.
Governor Ralph Northam’s order to forbid gatherings of more than 10 people everywhere, even in church, didn’t sit well with some. John McGuire and Nick Freitas, Republican candidates for the 7th Congressional District seat, complained about it on their social media pages, with McGuire calling it unconstitutional to apply the ban to religious groups.
It isn’t a challenge only for Christians. Jewish families who normally would gather with relatives this week for Passover are unable to do so. Later this month, Muslims will find they can’t celebrate Ramadan as they are accustomed to.
Though most religious leaders would say they’d rather their members be in the pews, some see a silver lining in the situation. Sharon Roberts, pastor of St. Thomas Baptist Church in Bumpass, thinks attendance at her church has increased since the coronavirus crisis began.
“It’s brought a lot of people to the table, especially younger people, who were being pulled away from worship,” she said. “Now, if they’re home and they know church is going on, they’re dialing in.”
Roberts has found a way to carry on with customs of regular worship, with church trustees arranging to meet members at the church for tithing, for example. In between services, she provides biblical counseling just as she always has, and much of that was always over the phone anyway.
But there are certain practices of Holy Week, like traveling to other churches in the area, that can’t be easily replaced with an online version.
One idea Roberts has considered is to have church in the parking lot, with members staying in their cars for the service. She hasn’t done it yet because she wants to be sure she won’t create an opportunity for people to be too close to each other.
“God would not have us violate any of the laws of the land,” she said. “Setting an example is so important in the eyes of the people, when you have a platform like this.”
For the Episcopal Church, the Easter season lasts for eight weeks, up until Pentecost in late May. That presents an opportunity for some church leaders to have online services now, but maybe do something in person later if conditions improve.
“We’ve talked about doing something kind of like a delayed Easter,” said the Rev. Emily Brown, interim rector at St. James Episcopal Church in Louisa.
But she also knows, like Roberts, that celebrating Sundays and religious holidays can be done outside of the church building. She has pre-recorded sermons for parishioners to find on YouTube and sent services in paper form to members’ homes for them to do on their own.
“I wouldn’t say this has lessened the church’s ability to help us support each other, it’s just changed it,” said Richard Sandberg, pastor of Louisa Baptist Church. “Certainly preaching to an empty worship center is different. But it’s not about the people in the pews, it’s about worship to God. We’ve always had an audience of one.”
Sandberg and other church leaders have used technology creatively to reach people in between services, such as by inviting members to join a chat room using the Line app. It’s a means for people unable to see others in person to stay connected and make sure no one “slips through the cracks,” as the pastor puts it. Some use the app to swap recipes, while others have used it to ask for people’s prayers, as in the case of a family member diagnosed with the coronavirus illness. The church also instituted online giving since members aren’t able to do so on Sunday mornings.
Sandberg sees churchgoers experience stress in normal times, but what’s happening now is unique because people are so much more isolated.
“Now people can’t even have someone over for coffee,” he said. “We don’t want to overlook people who can’t use the app. And there’s no question people are getting laid off, and that’s bringing a lot of stress. How far is that relief check going to stretch for people? That’s where faith is so important.
“We’re all looking forward to having worship together again,” he continued. “But times like this remind us that even of death, we don’t have to be afraid. The church building may be empty, but [Jesus’s] tomb was empty, too.”