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Annual Easter celebration on the Arkansas River waterfront canceled

by Frank E. Lockwood | March 11, 2023 at 8:29 a.m.
Little Rock’s waterfront community Easter sunrise service, a tradition dating to 1989, has been canceled. Rather than organizing the event and broadcasting it live, Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church will air a recorded service featuring Methodists from Little Rock and elsewhere in Arkansas. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)

After three straight years of pandemic- and weather-related misfortune, the congregation organizing the Little Rock Community Easter Sunrise Service has decided to cancel the event completely this year.

Rather than broadcasting a service live from the banks of the Arkansas River, Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church officials will instead air a recorded telecast featuring Methodists from Central Arkansas and elsewhere.

The new format "does not require lots of volunteers, a substantial budget, or being dependent on a morning without spring rainstorms," Pulaski Heights' clergy explained in a letter to parishioners.

The primary motivation, however, "is to involve other United Methodist Christians from across the state of Arkansas, not just local figures. This allows us to include smaller congregations, individuals, choirs, and additional participants who would very much like the privilege of being a part of something that unites us in the face of so much division," the letter stated.

The re-imagined service is an opportunity "to use our voice to amplify Methodist connectionality and togetherness," church spokesman Michael McMurray said Tuesday.

John Robbins, the congregation's pastor, will preach the sermon.

Bishop Laura Merrill of the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church will pray.

Natasha Murray, pastor of St. James United Methodist Church in Pine Bluff, will likely deliver one of the readings.

The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville's Inspirational Chorale will sing.

Scott Montgomery, organist at Fayetteville's Central United Methodist Church, said he's glad to be working with the team from Pulaski Heights UMC.

He'll be playing a toccata by Charles-Marie Widor as the postlude on an organ with roughly 3,000 pipes.

"It's very exciting to be a part of a service that's going to reach thousands of people that are normally not visiting either one of our churches," he said.

The broadcast, Murray said, will emphasize "the hope and the joy that comes with resurrection."

As Easter approaches, the collaboration shows that "We are still together, still united, still hopeful for a new tomorrow," she said.

With 4,700 members, Pulaski Heights UMC is one of the nation's 100 largest United Methodist congregations, as measured by membership. Its Sunday morning service has aired weekly since 1966.

Members of the Moravian Church are said to have originated the Easter sunrise service in 1732, gathering in a cemetery in what is now Herrnhurt, Germany, to celebrate the Resurrection.

By the 1770s, Moravian immigrants had taken the tradition to the United States. A Moravian sunrise service has been an annual tradition in Winston-Salem, N.C., for more than 250 years.

Arkansas Methodists have been holding sunrise services of one kind or another for more than 100 years, in communities large and small.

A service atop Hot Springs Mountain drew crowds from the Depression era until the 1990s.

Since 1966, an Easter sunrise service has been held on Magnetic Mountain near Eureka Springs at the foot of the Christ of the Ozarks.

The service at Mt. Sequoyah in Fayetteville is even older, stretching to the 1920s.

Pulaski Heights UMC launched Little Rock's Community Easter Sunrise Service in 1989, the year that the amphitheater in the city's River Market District opened, and organizers say it often drew thousands of people.

But covid-19 brought it to a halt in 2020 and 2021. Last year, with the National Weather Service predicting rainfall and possible thunderstorms, it was was scrubbed yet again.

After incurring "noticeable costs" for events that never took place, Pulaski Heights decided to try another approach, McMurray said.

While the riverfront service has been canceled "a plethora of churches do a sunrise service of some variety," he noted.

Little Rock's First Lutheran Church has no plans to cancel its annual Easter sunrise service, which is scheduled for 7 a.m. April 9, with breakfast following.

Inclement weather won't be a problem; the service is held indoors.

  photo  Pastor John Robbins of Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church will preach the sermon on a pre-recorded service that will air on Easter Sunday. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Frank E. Lockwood)

  photo  Until covid-19 and inclement weather caused disruptions, Little Rock’s community Easter sunrise service had drawn crowds to the riverfront for more than three decades. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)


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