More than a year into the covid-19 pandemic, a community-wide Easter worship service organized by Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church has been channeled into a event open to everyone and adheres to guidelines recommended to limit the spread of the virus.
"Easter With Pulaski Heights" will begin at 10:30 a.m. Sunday at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. Doors open at 9:45 a.m., and participants will be required to wear masks and adhere to social distancing protocols.
"It's our Super Bowl," church spokesman Michael McMurray said of the event.
The annual Easter service, which was started in 1989, has been a fixture on the calendar for several decades, featuring bands, choir and dance performances, guest speakers and an Easter sermon at First Security Amphitheater on the banks of the Arkansas River in downtown Little Rock.
Attendance at previous Easter sunrise services has averaged around 3,500 people, according to McMurray. He said that as for adhering to social distancing guidelines, War Memorial Stadium can accommodate as many as 8,000.
Sunday's forecast calls for highs in the low 70s with partly cloudy skies in the morning, according to weather.com.
"We're just hoping to see faces again -- again masks, social distancing," said the Rev. Jay Clark, Pulaski Heights' executive pastor. "At least half a face."
Pulaski Heights canceled its Easter service last year, which had been scheduled for just a few weeks after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic.
Broadcasting the service and coordinating with community partners meant that planning for this year's event began in January.
"As we got closer [to Easter] we thought, 'What if we offered a service outside? Wouldn't it be wonderful to do one outside? And War Memorial [Stadium] is in our neighborhood," Clark said.
The stadium has played host to religious events previously.
It served as the venue for Christian crusades led by the Rev. Billy Graham in 1959 and 1989, according to the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. More recently, the stadium has been reserved about once a month by a Little Rock church during the pandemic, stadium staff member Lindsey Browning said.
Tania Kelley, the Little Rock Central High School senior who sang under the name Nia Renée on American Idol earlier this year, will perform, along with New Creation Dance group. Percussionist Rick Dimond, the Ozark Point Brass Quartet and a quartet of singers from the church also will perform.
This year's community-wide service will not be televised, and there will be no particular special offering, McMurray said. Money collected at the event will be put toward some of the church's operating costs, along with missions such as its food pantry and donations to the Central Arkansas Diaper Bank.
Clark said those in attendance can expect a sermon from John Robbins "that's going to prepare them to go back out into the world."
After a year in which many worshipped online with their families or by themselves, Clark said what people will seek most from this year's Easter service is a feeling of community. Clark said the church receives at least five letters a week from people expressing a need for face-to-face fellowship.
"Often in the Christian church you'll hear people refer to it as the body of Christ, and that can't be more evident on the day you celebrate his resurrection," he said. "So many people have been craving community, and that's what we hear over and over again."
"Being with a group of people, I think that's what they're going to be feeling the most," Clark said. "So many people are watching [church] on TV with their families or by themselves, so being around people and hearing familiar hymns about the Easter season ... I think there'll be a few things that are familiar.
"It's supposed to be a beautiful day, and everyone is welcome."