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Churches prepare to fill Easter pews

by Francisca Jones | April 3, 2021 at 2:59 a.m.
Youngsters dash through Ward Nail Park in Lowell during the city’s community Easter egg hunt in 2019. As Arkansas churches reintroduce or continue in-person worship services in some capacity, faith leaders are determining what worship of Christ’s resurrection will look like on Sunday, the second consecutive Easter of the covid-19 pandemic. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

New banners emblazoned with Bible verses and a cross bearing the words "He is Risen" will be among the signs greeting people Sunday when they enter the sanctuary of Calvary Baptist Church in Hope.

The Rev. Gary Johnson led his congregation through an online Easter Sunday service last year, the church's first livestreamed worship service.

"Here's a concert we canceled," Johnson said Tuesday after flipping backward through the pages of his secretary's calendar to look at March 2020's pages. "Everything was canceled. It was just slash, slash, slash."

This Easter heralds the second consecutive commemoration of Christ's resurrection during the covid-19 pandemic. The Christian holiday comes as the number of U.S. adults who are vaccinated continues to rise since the release of the first covid-19 vaccine in December, and the day falls on the first Sunday after Gov. Asa Hutchinson lifted Arkansas' mask mandate Tuesday.

Many churches in the state are beginning to or have started to transition back to in-person worship with caution. Masks and social distancing guidelines for in-person worship in May are now guidelines for the state instead of directives, although businesses can continue to require mask-wearing.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

And while turnout numbers for in-person worship services have varied since the beginning of the pandemic, faith leaders and church staff who plan to open their doors Sunday remain cautiously optimistic about the downward trend in the numbers of new virus cases and say there is a lot to celebrate no matter the circumstances.

In the weeks of the Lenten season leading up to Easter, Conway's Peace Lutheran Church senior pastor John Gierke said he has been preparing his congregation for the holiday -- available to members online and in-person -- by leading devotions and showing videos from a trip he took to Jerusalem, noting elements that connect with Holy Week and tying them back to the devotions. Their gathering will require social distancing and masks.

Many members have expressed excitement about returning to the pews, Gierke said, but others have said they don't feel ready to worship in person yet.

Despite that uncertainty, he said the joy of the occasion and the hope that the Easter story brings with it each year remain strong.

"I'm sure there will be a lot of people who won't want to wear masks, and others who [think] 'Please, please wear masks.' So that's a delicate subject, as you can imagine, but ... the joy of Easter is always there," Gierke said. "The hope is not diminished because Christ is risen. It's just, how do we do those celebratory things in a way that's still socially distanced and yet still proclaims the praises?"

Members of Little Rock's Emmanuel Baptist Church won't return to their pews for Easter Sunday this year; they'll be in their cars in the parking lot. The children giving Easter speeches over Zoom last year will be able to speak in person, said Levita Scull, who serves the predominantly Black congregation in several leadership capacities.

With audience microphones muted during that segment of the Easter service broadcast over Zoom last year, the children couldn't hear their parents and other members responding with claps or cheers to their speeches.

"This way the children will get to be in front of the church," Scull said.

What's been heartening, Scull said, are the new members -- at least a half dozen people -- who have joined the 250 to 300 church members in worship on YouTube during the pandemic and have kept in touch through the past year, despite having not set foot in the physical church building.

"I think it's a testament of people really wanting to be a part of [the church and the faith]," Scull said.

At Christ Church Conway, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church's Presbyterian Church in America denomination, members have been meeting online and in person with guidelines in place. In the Conway storefront church sanctuary, the group removed every other row of seating to reduce its capacity by about 50%.

Pastor Kevin Hale said Tuesday that while the congregation was compliant with distancing and mask guidelines for in-person worship, he would consider updating the guidelines inside the storefront church before Easter Sunday based on Hutchinson's decision on the mask mandate. (Conway followed the governor's lead and lifted its mask mandate.)

Hale acknowledged that covid-19 will continue to present challenges for some time.

"In the resurrection [of Christ] is victory, and therefore our victory over sin," Hale said. "Undoubtedly, [covid-19] is not going to go away by Sunday ... there's hope in what Christ has done for us to reconcile us to move forward.

"The Easter story is one that we celebrate week to week. We don't just celebrate the resurrection. This reminder of the triumph of Christ gives us a paradigm for how to make sure that we can still have hope, even when life is difficult."

"This is the grandest of days for the Christian calendar," Johnson said of the occasion. "If you can't be excited about Easter, I'm not sure there's much you can be excited about."

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