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Celebrating Easter and Passover in a Pandemic

With online services and phone calls, clergy members see opportunities to connect


Part of the The Coronavirus Outbreak: What You Need to Know Special Report

Traditionally on Easter Sunday, the Church of the Assumption is awash in beautiful spring flowers, with hydrangeas and lilies covering the marble steps on the altar of this 145-year old Catholic church in St. Paul, Minn.

Every pew is normally filled, and it’s standing-room-only on the sides of the church, as well as in the back. Young and old are dressed in their finest, springtime hats top many heads. The choir is in full voice. The mood feels celebratory, as people are gathered, in the same way they have always gathered, for what is considered the focal point of the liturgical year in the Church.

But this year, in the wake of the pandemic, and the now-familiar practice of physical and social distancing, the pews will be empty. Near the altar, there will be a video camera trained on Rev. Paul Treacy, the pastor of the church, as he celebrates Mass for those same churchgoers, who’ll be watching at home on their computers. Some will be with their families, some will be alone.

While Treacy admits the situation is “challenging,” he says acclimating to filming the liturgy is “a labor of love” because of its significance to parishioners; more than 4,000 attend Mass every week at Assumption (this number includes daily Mass goers, most of them older).

Religious celebrations this week will be markedly different from anything that people of several faiths have experienced in their lifetimes.

“Even though it’s very different, it will be wonderful for them to see the church they love, to see the place that for many of them is home,” says Treacy, adding, while pared down, there will be flowers on the altar because “we want to make it lovely and special.”

This Year, A Call to Stay Apart

Religious celebrations this week will be markedly different from anything that people of several faiths have experienced in their lifetimes.

Mandated to stay at home, many will watch services online. For those celebrating Passover, there are also virtual Seders being organized by congregations or by individual families. (Ramadan, which begins on April 23, will also be making accommodations this year.)

But rather than emphasize the loss of connection and community, clergy members and others say the pandemic and its restrictions bring with them unexpected opportunities for spiritual growth and connectivity, and a deeper appreciation for blessings in life that are easy to take for granted.

“What’s new is old,” says Craig Brown, an associate pastor at First Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “In the early days, as it was told in the stories of the Bible, there was no formal worship. There were no buildings. No sanctuaries. People were simply caring for each other, and Christianity flourished.”

In fact, Brown says, it is the call of Christians not to meet right now.

“Jesus talked about caring for the least among us, the most vulnerable. By staying apart from each other, and apart from older members of the congregation, we are caring for them,” he says.

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As many churches and synagogues have gone online, so has First Lutheran Church — and according to Brown, the results have been gratifying.

“At our church, we typically have about 550 people who attend services every week. Our first online service had 1,000 people participating, our second one had 800,” says Brown. The church will live-stream a service on Easter Sunday.

First Lutheran Church has even created a virtual “narthex” (gathering space) where members of the congregation can say hello to the pastors after the service, much as they would do if they were at the church, with a twist: according to the website, people are invited to “bring their own donut holes.”

Going Beyond Worship

During this time of isolation, churches and temples are being particularly mindful of those who are alone, and their staff members are often reaching out with a phone call, which offers a personal opportunity for conversation.

At Assumption, Treacy says, church staff and volunteers are going through the parish directory and calling everyone listed. “We just want to let them know that we are thinking of them and wishing them well,” he says.

During the first week of the church’s shutdown, Brown and other staff members at First Lutheran Church quickly organized a phone tree: the congregation has 900 families, and 80 volunteers call 10 to 12 families each week.

“We’ve encouraged them to call on Sundays if they can, since that’s when we’d normally see each other,” Brown says.

Volunteers give families the chance to opt in or out of the weekly call. “Volunteers are also asking folks if they have any pastoral life concerns; those names are shared with the pastors, and then we follow up with a call,” says Brown.

Despite the challenges in these new forms of outreach, Brown is gratified by the fact that his church “is seeing connectivity as we’ve never seen before.” Calling this period “the temporary abnormal,” Brown says he remains encouraged. “We’re going to be okay as a church. I think people will survive and thrive,” Brown says.

Remembering the Least

This week, Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles will be live-streaming several virtual Seders; it also has begun live-streaming Shabbat services.

Even with its large congregation of 8,000 members, the temple’s staff is also committed to calling each of its older adults.

“We started with calls to every temple member from age ninety-nine to sixty,” says Rabbi Steve Leder, senior rabbi. “And now we’re working on fifty-nine to fifty. After that, we’ll start over again.”

Something that has been reassuring to his staff is the responses they are receiving from the oldest members of the congregation.

“The older the person, the less worried they seem to be. They tell us, ‘We’re fine,’” Leder says. “I think it’s a reminder to all of us that we have all been through something difficult in our lives. This will be no different.”

Leder calls the coronavirus “a powerful lesson in vulnerability and humility.”

Wilshire Boulevard Temple is also committed to serving the immediate needs of people in the surrounding communities hardest hit by the economic fallout of the pandemic.

The campus’s Karsh Family Social Service Center (which offers health care and other services, along with housing a food pantry) is actively distributing food, diapers and personal hygiene items to families and individuals within 20 Los Angeles ZIP codes.

Leder says the need grows greater by the day; in the first week alone, the temple assisted 600 families.

“The working poor are no longer working. They are just poor,” he says.

Community Is a Gift

Apart from maintaining connection and offering outreach, this is a time where those interviewed for this story say deeper spiritual truths can lead to growth.

“I think many Christians are resonating very deeply with the solitary experience of Jesus on Good Friday this year,” says Debbie Swindoll, the executive director of Grafted Life Ministries in Plano, Texas, where she also serves as a spiritual director.

“It’s something we might not normally fully understand because we are always socially connected. We shouldn’t move too quickly past that. There is an opportunity for a deeper relationship,” she continues. “I can experience myself with God. Is God loving me here? Can I accept myself as weak and see him as strong?”

“I think this pandemic has been a wake-up call. It’s not a right to be in community. But it’s something that we should all treasure.”

Since the nature of traditional religious celebrations like Easter and Passover rests in community, going forward, this period of physical distancing may result in a greater appreciation for what it means to be together.

“We shouldn’t take community for granted. We need to see it as a privilege, and one that we might not always have in life,” Swindoll says. “I think this pandemic has been a wake-up call. It’s not a right to be in community. But it’s something that we should all treasure.”

Treacy agrees that many are “a little closer to the Passion this year” and believes there is “grace in the greater appreciation for what we have.” And, he says, when congregations can gather again, “the sense of Easter will be even brighter.”

Referring to virtual Seders, Leder says while families won’t be able to “hug, kiss, eat, celebrate and sing” in the ways they are accustomed to, “this year we will have a heightened sense of gratitude for next year’s Seder, and for last year’s.”

Adapting Family Traditions to Today’s World

Along with the tradition of attending Easter Sunday services, family gatherings (which may typically include a meal and an Easter egg hunt for young ones) are also on hold this year.

Julie Meyer, 58, who lives in a Minneapolis suburb, is a grandmother to two girls, ages 4 ½ and 1. Before the #StayHomeMN mandate went into effect, she was planning to host 12 people for Easter dinner.

Instead, she and her husband Jim will watch on their computer Easter Mass broadcast from the Church of the Risen Savior, a Catholic church they have attended for many years.

They have already tuned in for the past two weeks and miss their parish community. “It’s a lonely experience, and it’s strange to sing on our own,” Meyer says.

After Easter Mass, Meyer and her husband will drive a few miles to deliver Easter baskets (purchased several weeks ago) for their granddaughters, putting them on the front steps, “like ‘ding dong ditch,’” she says with a slight laugh.

Nevertheless, Meyer is looking forward to seeing the little girls, whom she hasn’t seen for weeks, dressed up in their Easter best and waving from the window.

“It’s the best we can do this year,” she says.

Julie Pfitzinger, editor of Next Avenue, wearing a light blue shirt in front of a mauve background.
By Julie Pfitzinger
Julie Pfitzinger is the editor for Next Avenue’s lifestyle coverage across the Living and Technology channels. Her journalism career has included feature writing for the Star-Tribune, as well as several local parenting and lifestyle publications, all in the Twin Cities area. Julie also served as managing editor for nine local community lifestyle magazines. She joined Next Avenue in October 2017. Reach her by email her at [email protected].

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