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Churches provide Easter uplift, even remotely amid COVID-19

Churches provide Easter uplift, even remotely amid COVID-19

Many churches will livestream services, even with pews empty
Churches provide Easter uplift, even remotely amid COVID-19
Sign at the Calvary Episcopal Church, during the COVID-19 pandemic
Photographer: Erica Miller/Staff Photographer

CAPITAL REGION -- Holy Week and Easter come around on the Christian religious calendar every year as surely as snow melts in April, but there's never been an Easter like this one.

It's been a century since so many Americans were so fearful of a widespread virus-caused illness. But then, there are communication technologies available today that didn't exist during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919, meaning it's easier for government to monitor and forbid mass gatherings even when they are religious -- but also easier for religious leaders to get their message out despite those restrictions.

"Easter this year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, may give us a better sense of what the first Easter really felt like," said the Rev. Gabriel Morrow of Calvary Episcopal Church in Burnt Hills.

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Many if not most churches in the Capital Region have continued to hold services in the month since mass gatherings were banned, with their leaders speaking before empty pews. But they still reach worshipers who may be staying home to prevent exposure to and spread of the novel coronavirus, using internet technologies like Facebook Live or Zoom.

While the technology they are using is new, several religious leaders who spoke to The Daily Gazette said the Easter message isn't really any different from any other year -- it's just that what is happening in the world makes the message of hope and renewal more real.

"It's a challenge this year because it's a strange situation," said the Rev. Bill Levering, senior pastor at the First Reformed Church in Schenectady. "It's a time of hope, but it's a hope and renewal that comes out of disruption and death ... We'll try to be as celebratory as possible. There will be transformations coming out of this. Some things will never be the same."

First Reformed will be streaming its 10 a.m. service to the congregation and public live on YouTube, and immediately after the service there are plans for an all-ages Easter parade -- but it will be a virtual Easter parade, with people participating with Zoom conferencing software. "It's very important that people be able to be social," Levering said.

He also noted that Easter comes at the end of a difficult series of days for Christians, as the events leading up to crucifixion are marked, followed by the Easter celebration of Christ's resurrection. "I think the emotional texture of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday is more difficult because of the emotions involved," Levering said. "Getting up and being a cheerleader for hope on Easter morning isn't as difficult as dealing with the darker and more difficult emotions of those days."

At Messiah Lutheran Church in Rotterdam, there will be Easter services at 10:15 a.m. and 6 p.m., available via Facebook Live and Zoom. Musicians and singers can come together through Zoom, while the Facebook Live comment feature allows people to offer prayers 

"That has been working really great so far. Amid all this crisis, we haven't missed a single service," said the church's pastor, the Rev. Dustin Wright.

He, too, said the Easter message isn't really different from any other year, even if the circumstances are a radical departure.

"I think my message throughout all this is that this virus, I don't think it was caused by God, but God is using it to show how all our destinies are bound up together," Wright said. "What I've been preaching is that God is bringing us together in this difficult time to make some changes, and maybe bring a more just society ... I think there is some hope in this, the reminder that we are all in this together ... We have not remembered how much we are all connected, and how much what we all do affects each other."

In the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese, services performed by diocese leadership are being livestreamed from the Cathedral of the Immacuate Conception in Albany, and local churches are also performing services that are available on the internet. Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger has presided at some services, while the Rev. David R. LeFort of Immaculate Conception will preside at the 11 a.m. Easter Mass.

Scharfenberger, in a message provided to The Gazette, said there are parallels between what many people feel now and the despair of the 12 disciples upon Jesus' being put to death.

"As bad as our current crisis might seem, it is hardly more devastating than what his small band of disciples faces, the day after Jesus died," Scharfenberger wrote. "They were shattered and they scattered. We all know how the narrative changed. Suddenly and unexpectedly. Not that Jesus didn't put them on notice. I never counted how many times he repeated that the Son of Man would be put to death and on the third day rise up again, but when it happened nobody had a clue."

In Burnt Hills, the 170-year-old Calvary Episcopal Church on Lakehill Road is using its existing Facebook page to broadcast live services to remote viewers. The church usually holds two Sunday morning services and a Sunday evening service, but for as long the social gathering restrictions last, those services have been replaced by a single service at 9 a.m., including on Easter Sunday.

"Really, in some respects, our message hasn't changed, and is just as relevant now as it ever has been," said Morrow, the pastor. "The message of Easter is that death doesn't win. That does not mean we should be blind to a health crisis or disease or injury, and we should participate fully in the things we are asked to do as citizens, but we have hope that Resurrection is just as valid in the midst of this pandemic as it was in the year 33 A.D. in Jerusalem. Death doesn't win."

It's ironic, Morrow acknowledged, that Christians are being asked to love their neighbor by avoiding contact. "We show love by restricting our freedoms, just as Jesus restricted his freedoms and sacrificed himself," Morrow said. "That is what He did for us."

At Hope Church in the Saratoga County town of Milton, the normal custom each Sunday is to work through all the books of the Bible sequentially, drawing contemporary lessons each week, said Rev. Nate Thompson. But for the last four weeks, with the 10 a.m. service streamed through Zoom, the message has focused on the current situation. The series will culminate on Easter.

"The big idea of this series is that God works through evil and hard times, for the good of those who love him," Thompson said.  "Jesus went through suffering, and then he arose on the third day for our forgiveness and hope."

It will be a message delivered in an empty sanctuary, even with people watching from home. "I'm talking to myself. It's weird," Thompson said.

The Jewish world, meanwhile, is in the middle of marking the eight days of Passover. For conservative synagogues, they may have shut down entirely during the pandemic to avoid illness and because use of electronics, even to broadcast a service, could violate Sabbath traditions.

But Congregation Gates of Heaven, a more-liberal synagogue in Schenectady, has been livestreaming its services even before social distancing restrictions, including last week's service at the start of Passover, and this coming Thursday' s service at the end of Passover. Seders have been held using Zoom.

The current situation echoes the first Passover, which led to the freedom of Jews who had been enslaved in Egypt, said Rabbi Matt Cutler of Congregation Gates of Heaven, and that has been reflected in his messages.

"There's usually a prayer for well-being and for our doctors and nurses, but part of it is also how do we learn from this, and how do we change," Cutler said. "When this started and everyone was afraid, it really related back to the first Passover, when there was a lot of fear. We can relate to it and emulate it, the hope of it. There's an inherent sense of hope in Passover, because we were slaves who became free."

Reach staff writer Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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