Last year, Easter took place one month after the pandemic drastically altered our way of life — with most churches across the country celebrating Easter online.
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For the first time in more than a year, the Rev. Brent Levy gathered with his congregation to worship in-person three times to celebrate Easter last weekend.
His church met to observe the Christian commemoration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead four times total: 6:45 a.m. for a sunrise service at Bynum Bridge, 9 and 11 at The Parlour at Manns Chapel and online.
“It was so good to see people that I’ve only seen as disembodied heads for the last year through Zoom meetings, and heard their voices in phone calls,” said Levy, who is the pastor at The Local Church in Pittsboro.
As the first foray into in-person worship, Levy said the church wanted to do so with “intentionality,” providing multiple options to spread out capacity. On Sunday, there were about 150 people across the three in-person services, Levy estimated.
While gathering in-person was beautiful, he said it was also weird — weird because, in an effort to make protocol as safe as possible, they’d asked people not to sing.
“Gosh, to not be able to sing was strange on Easter Sunday when songs like ‘Christ the Lord is Risen Today’ are such a fixture of our Resurrection celebration,” Levy said. “It gave us room to listen to how creation sang and rejoiced with us, and the ways that we’re a part of that. When we were on the bridge, we heard the waves rushing, a bald eagle flew overhead, we heard birds singing to welcome the morning.
“And so it allowed us to sort of hear other ways that the resurrection was being celebrated.”
Last year, Easter took place one month after the pandemic drastically altered our way of life — with most churches across the country celebrating Easter online. In North Carolina, worship and religious gatherings are exempt from statewide COVID-19 restrictions, and have been for most of the pandemic. In Chatham, churches have interpreted this in different ways, with some worshipping inside and outdoors with safety protocols in place and others, like Local Church, choosing to abide by state gathering restrictions and remain online.
Easter celebration was no different; churches across the county varied widely in service offerings, though most emphasized mask-wearing and social distancing, if they met in-person.
“About a year ago, after Easter and the disappointment of having to be online for that last year,” Levy said, “I was talking to one of our leadership team members, and I said, ‘Look, I don’t care, when it is in the year, whenever we’re back in-person, we’re gonna preach Easter,’ because it’s gonna feel like resurrection.”
He didn’t know at the time the next in-person worship service would fall on Easter, but he stood by his promise to preach Easter — and, he said, it felt like resurrection.
For other churches still meeting online, celebrating Easter felt like another reminder of life during a pandemic.
The Rev. Andrew Taylor-Troutman, pastor at Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church, said this year’s Holy Week — the commemoration of the week leading up to Christ’s death and resurrection — was one of his least busy. Usually, this week involves multiple weeknight services leading up to Easter Sunday. This year, Taylor-Troutman recorded most of the services ahead of time.
“Which is, you know, it’s strange. Today’s Maundy Thursday, and I spent all morning at church recording that Easter Sunday service,” he said last week. “On Palm Sunday, I was recording the Good Friday service. On the one hand it seems all out of whack.”
Recently, Chapel in the Pines started offering drive-in services, where congregants stay in their car as the service is broadcast over a FM transmitter. They’ve also added “circles of safety,” where people can sit socially distanced and masked in chalked circles outside to worship.
For Easter Sunday, the church hosted two outdoor services, in addition to providing recorded worship for those who didn’t feel comfortable attending yet.
“We recognize that we can’t include everyone in every format, but we want to have an option for every single person. So that’s kind of our guiding principle,” Taylor-Troutman said. “I will say that many of our members, they’re just very eager to get back in person. They have online fatigue. And we’re a close-knit congregation … So people, a huge reason they came to church was for the community aspect, to see their friends and their church family.”
Kat Good, a Chatham resident, said her church in Orange County is still meeting remotely — but she views that as a good thing. She works with children as the assistant director of religious education at The Community Church of Chapel Hill Unitarian Universalist.
“I really like online church, and I kind of only have liked it more the more we do it,” Good said. “I’m not really itching to get back to the way we were, and in fact, I think being able to adapt online has helped us do church better, and there’s going to be things even when we go back in-person we’re going to keep doing from this time.”
Last year, Good used baby chicks in a video for her children’s Easter service; this year they were full grown. “All the animals come to church now, which is great,” she said with a laugh, adding that she’s gotten to know the children she serves better this year, seeing them in their homes and when they choose to log on.
“Honestly, for us, it was kind of like a normal Sunday,” Good said of Easter, adding that as a Unitarian Universalist church — which weaves many religious traditions and identities together — Easter isn’t a huge holiday.
This year, Good said, with the exception of one 6-year-old, people were not dressed up on the Zoom call, which wasn’t the case last Easter.
“That is a big change — Easter’s normally a dress-up day,” she said. “And we are certainly feeling the effects of being at this for over a year.”
Rev. Charles Mathews of Union Grove A.M.E Zion Church in Bear Creek said his congregation is still meeting online, with plans to begin moving to parking lot worship soon. They observed Holy Week together by meeting over Facebook Live and Zoom to fast, read and reflect on Scripture and worship. The church also hosted a small in-person gathering on Saturday to celebrate Easter vigil with parking lot games and fellowship.
“Despite the different ways that we have been meeting, this was just a steal,” Mathews said. “It’s been a wonderful experience for us to still try to unite in our faith, share our faith and keep in relationship.”
After their abbreviated virtual Easter service, Mathew’s church joined Terrell’s Chapel A.M.E Zion in Pittsboro for its first outdoor worship service — previously the church had only met by phone, so Mathews said it was important to celebrate the occasion together on Resurrection Sunday.
“I think it has been beautiful ... And you know, it’s just being grateful that this was reflective of what is, of what this week and day meant for us,” he said.
He’s grateful, too, that the pandemic happened during a time with such advanced technology. As his church begins to offer more in-person services, he’s taking time to reflect not only on the positives the pandemic has brought his church, but the very real impacts the pandemic is still having on people and communities.
“There’s still people that are dying, you know, it’s not over,” Mathews said.
Father Julio Martinez of St. Julia Catholic Church told the News + Record in March he was continuing to stress safety at church services — emphasizing masking, social distancing and helping congregants to get vaccinated. St. Julia’s hosted five Easter services, with two Saturday evening and three on Sunday morning.
“If we can’t fit certain groups inside the church, they’ll just stand outside in the plaza and hopefully they will be able to participate from there, as we have done in the past,” he said. “But we’re continuing with providing our people with the opportunity to worship.”
St. Julia’s congregation is more than 85% Hispanic, and offers both Spanish and English masses. During a normal Holy Week celebration, Martinez said his church would have live stations of the Cross on Easter, but due to COVID-19 safety concerns, they did not this year.
“I told the people at the very beginning that I was going to be very hard-headed about this,” he said with a laugh, “so not to fight me on this, that my main concern was to keep everyone healthy when they were here ... We have been extremely careful, and I’m very, very glad that we stuck to our guns.”
For churches without their own building, finding ways to worship in person is a creative process. Lee Callicutt, pastor of Grace Hill Church, said his congregation met at night inside the Pittsboro Church of Nazarene once it became too cold to meet outside. Easter Sunday was the church’s first outdoor morning service since moving indoors.
“We’re only like two years old,” he said. “We don’t have our own building, or anything, so we really had to get creative.”
On Easter, Callicutt said about 130 people met at 69 Robyn’s Nest Ln. for outdoor worship. Social distancing was encouraged, but many people did not wear masks — highlighting the difference in how churches are conceptualizing a return to worship.
While outdoor worship has its challenges, Callicutt said it “cuts out a lot of the noise” characteristic of life pre-pandemic.
“What it does is it solidifies that our only hope is in Jesus Christ,” he said. “And he is the one that we worship — whether we have to meet in the parking lot, or pasture or wherever, the church will gather for the name of Christ.”
Danny Berrier, pastor of Cedar Grove United Methodist Church and Chatham United Methodist Church, said both churches had parking lot services for Easter.
At Cedar Grove, there was also an Easter egg hunt for families and children after the service, though Berrier said he aimed to make a clear distinction between the two — as he “didn’t want the Easter bunny hopping through the worship service.”
“It’s very important to worship on Easter Sunday,” he said. “2020 Easter versus 2021 Easter, obviously, a tremendous difference. We did not worship at all in 2020 ... For me, as a pastor, I felt that it was essential for the congregation to have some of those routines that we’ve honored for generations and to do as good as we could to recapture some of that.”
Despite meeting in-person this year, Taylor-Troutman said Easter still felt like Lent — the Christian season of reflection and preparation for Easter which points to Christ’s biblical withdrawal into the desert for 40 days.
“What I mean by that is, it still feels like a wilderness experience, as opposed to the real celebration of being back together,” he said.
Still, the time has been full of gifts, too: finding creative adaptations and being forced to focus on “what it means to be the church outside of our buildings.”
“So we have to carry that forward, even when we’re fully back,” he said.
Levy also felt the tension of celebrating Easter for the second time amid a global pandemic.
He preached from Mark’s gospel, as dictated by the United Methodist lectionary. That account originally ends with the women leaving Jesus’ empty tomb trembling and afraid after hearing the proclamation from an angel that “he is not here.” Unlike the other gospel accounts, it did not originally include Jesus appearing to the women, or meeting with his disciples, though some translations now include that text.
“There’s so much tension in that story right there — you find yourself really in the in-between of what was and what could be,” Levy said. “In many ways, I think our community is sort of tentative about leaning into that promise of resurrection, right? We know it’s coming, we know it’s there, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, we cling to that promise and we’re just taking some small steps into that rather than going all in.”
“I think this resurrection account for me from Mark’s gospel really spoke to our present moment,” he added. “They left in silence, but we know that the story didn’t end there … We know that it didn’t end in silence and in fear, but it’s OK — resurrection can be a slow burn, sometimes it can take a minute to sink in. And I think that speaks to the intentionality and sort of the slowness of our move back to in-person as well.”
Reporter Victoria Johnson contributed to this report.
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.