Easter 2021 was filled with tears for many Christian worshipers across America, but this year they often were tears of joy as congregations met in-person for the first time in a year. Even if those services were held outdoors, they represented signs of hope.
Last Easter, Tommy Shapard was at home recovering from a severe case of COVID-19 that had hospitalized him and nearly killed him. The minister of music at Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., watched his church’s pre-recorded online Easter service from bed, thankful to be alive but not knowing what lay ahead.
“Resurrection took on new meaning for me personally.”
“This year was complete joy for me, as we gathered socially distanced and masked in our sanctuary,” he said. “I was present. Resurrection took on new meaning for me personally. To be with a portion of my church family was beyond words.”
And this year, the musician whose lungs recently had been comprised by COVID sang a solo that was, in fact, his own testimony too: “Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear that music ringing; It finds an echo in my soul — How can I keep from singing?”
‘We’ll celebrate Easter’
In Atlanta, Peachtree Baptist Church offered both in-person and online Easter worship.
“It was a hopeful scene today seeing more faces in person than we’ve ever had since a year ago,” said Shauw Chin Capps. “What was just as hopeful was the faces on the Zoom screen. It was beautiful to watch the light of the resurrection pulling us into fellowship with one another.”
At First Baptist Church of Tryon, N.C., church leadership had decided after missing in-person Easter worship last year that whenever they met in-person again they would celebrate Easter. “Little did we know that it would actually be Easter before we would re-gather,” said Pastor Jeff Harris.
This Easter, he was “grateful for an opportunity to preach to mask-covered faces and not just a camera,” he explained. “Deep gratitude for those who have faithfully gathered with us on Zoom for the last year. I’m grateful that the mic’d organ sounded great in the parking lot, with apologies to our UCC neighbors up the block who were also worshipping outdoors and were apparently able to hear our organ almost as well as we could.”
The music bleed-over from church parking lots wasn’t a nuisance as much as a blessing to some congregations.
The congregation of St. Johns Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., gathered in-person for the first time in more than a year, meeting outdoors for two short services. “During one, the Methodist church down the block was singing as we had our Scripture reading. It isn’t often we literally hear other congregations celebrating Easter,” noted Derek Henson.
Second Baptist Church of Liberty, Mo., also had intended to hold an have an “Easter reunion service” last year whenever things opened up again, no matter what Sunday it was. “Little did we know our Easter reunion service would be Easter Sunday 2021,” said Senior Pastor Jason Edwards.
This Easter, the congregation met outdoors on the grounds of a local winery.
“I experienced much of what I felt at our in-person outdoor services in the fall,” Edwards added. “I was surprised by the joy of spontaneous small talk with members of our congregation. It’s the mingling and catching up before the services and the lingering with people after that you don’t realize how much you miss until you’re in the midst of it.”
At Second Baptist, “one of the most sacred moments in the morning came during prayers of the people during our 8:30 service,” he continued. “Before our children’s pastor began leading us, she invited us to pray with our eyes open if we felt so led. We were worshiping out on the grounds of a local winery. Beautiful weather. As she was praying, a hawk or Eagle starting gliding overhead. My eyes drifted from taking in the site of our gathered congregation, to following the gliding bird, which seemed to be a sign of the Spirit in our midst, an Easter gift.”
Two types of communion
Many Baptist churches celebrate the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday of the month. With Easter falling on the first Sunday of April this year, worshipers across the nation got a taste of communion — both through fellowship and the Lord’s table. That sometimes required COVID-style adaptations, such as pre-portioned elements.
“We were unique in the fact that we are a small church and everyone in the congregation was vaccinated,” said Shelby Dean Nowland, pastor at Bread Fellowship in Fort Worth, Texas. “I think the only phrase that truly describes it is ‘blessed be the tie that binds.’”
This was “the first time in over a year that I’d shared the Lord’s Supper in the same space as my people, and I cried as I ate the holy feast. I truly felt the presence of the risen Christ as the birds joined us in proclaiming the resurrection as we gathered as the vaccinated body of Christ.”
Likewise, at Northaven Baptist Church in Norman, Okla., a smaller group of about 90 adults gathered indoors for the first time — made possible by the fact that all but five of those present had been vaccinated.
“We were masked, distanced, but indoors,” said Pastor Jakob Topper. Requiring everyone to sit 6 feet apart meant a few worshipers had to sit in the atrium. But still, “it was holy,” he said.
That same sense of holy awe permeated Vienna Baptist Church in Vienna, Va., said Lead Pastor Austin Almaguer.
“After a year of online-only worship, I was surprised by how meaningful it was to worship together in person — even if physically distant,” he said. “While our community has stayed connected, a Zoom meeting can’t replicate the organic conversations that happen after a service with everyone from youth to senior adults.”
“After a year of online-only worship, I was surprised by how meaningful it was to worship together in person.”
And there was another highlight of this Easter at Vienna Baptist, and Almaguer and his wife, Alison, were able to introduce their 6-month-old daughter to doting congregants who had only seen her on video calls. This, he said, “was truly a joy.”
“It is a special kind of blessing to laugh with people, to marvel at how fast our children grow, and enjoy a beautiful day that reminds us that new life is always possible.”
University Baptist Church in Starkville, Miss., split the weekend up with an outdoor fellowship of fishing, fun and a cook-out at a member’s farm on Saturday. This was the first in-person event the congregation has had in more than a year. Then on Easter Sunday, a few members met at the local tavern and led a masked, distanced livestream worship service celebrating Christ’s resurrection.
“It was so wonderful and hopeful to celebrate the resurrection following the hope and joyous beauty of an unplanned, un-rushed, lazy day together,” said Pastor Bert Montgomery.
Baptists weren’t alone in their Easter innovations this year. At Holy Family Catholic Church in Inverness, Ill., about 300 people could be accommodated in the sanctuary while observing the 6-feet-distance rule, said Mary Zimanzl Whiteside. “Masks are required, and our baptismal pool was closed, so we only had a large bowl with water poured over the head. We had a modified program to maintain space requirements, but it was beautiful!”
In North Texas, Bruce Austin just retired last week from the pastorate of Community North Baptist Church in McKinney. That would have been change enough for a career-long pastor, but that was only half the story for him this year.
“We went from no service last year to an in-person one this year, from being isolated to being together as a church family, from fear to joy,” he said. “I got to attend my son’s home church and see him baptize my grandsons in a very cold outdoor pool. It was a happy Easter!”
Some still online only
On the Hawaiian island of Maui, Keawala’i Congregational Church in Mãkena stuck with its virtual worship this Easter, but some congregants gathered the day before to decorate a cross with local flowers and to film the church’s traditional releasing of doves at the close of the Easter service.
That was “the first time most of us had seen each other in a year. It was such an amazing feeling of joy and reconnection,” said music leader Danette Kong.
This year’s Easter worship was filmed mainly outdoors in the old Hawaiian graveyard next to the church, and along the seawall fronting the ocean.
For churches that continued to offer online-only worship or a mix of in-person and online worship, there was one clear advantage for this Easter over last Easter: Experience.
“It was our second year being virtual, and we were able to do things we didn’t have time to plan for last year,” said Laura Beth Buchleiter, student minister at University Baptist Church of Bloomington, Ind. “The anticipation of being back in person was palpable, though.”
Franklin Baptist Church in Franklin, Va., just resumed in-person worship on Palm Sunday. Pastor Charles Qualls said that means he’s still getting an idea of who feels safe coming back and how to reassemble the congregation after a full year of isolation. “We are not singing just now and are using an abbreviated worship format of 40 minutes.”
This year, “I reminded everyone that this would be an Easter that would not feel like most do,” he said. :I think our people took that to heart, and most seemed really happy to be there. They laughed at all the right times participated at all the right times and lingered safely afterward. There was a good feel in the room. and it makes us look forward to future Sundays back together.”
Death and resurrection embodied
In some regions still hard-hit by the fourth resurgence of the pandemic, worshipers found themselves facing a second Easter with no option but virtual worship. That was the case at Germonds Presbyterian Church of New York City.
“While last Easter was difficult because we were suddenly in lockdown, this Easter was even more difficult,” said Minister Abbie Huff. “It has been more than a year since we have gathered in person at my church, aside from a handful of outdoor services in the summer and fall. While Easter is usually a joyful occasion, there was a somberness to it this year as we reflected on the life and death and Jesus’ sacrifice and God’s single-minded love for each of us.”
That message of suffering and hope “was relevant in ways it had not been before,” she added. “We interpreted it in a way it had not been before. It’s always good news, but this year, in the face of so much death, resurrection — God’s love conquering death — meant so much more.”
The same was true at Tabernacle Baptist Church of Burlington, N.J., where Pastor Cory Jones led a traditional Easter service online, aided by a small, socially distanced choir.
“We are still virtual in worship,” he explained. “It is sad for many in the congregation because this is the second straight year it has been this way. We were really looking forward to being back in the sanctuary by now. However, we have many seniors in our church. And although they are looking forward to getting together, they are in no rush and want to be safe. So they have continued many of their rituals like sending Easter cards, dinner with close friends and family, and watching service from home. However, with increasing vaccinations, we are expecting to come back to in person worship in the near future.”
This Easter offered yet a different lesson on death and resurrection for Wilton Baptist Church in Wilton, Conn.
“Last Easter we had church in the parking lot in our cars. This year we were able to worship inside, masked and distanced,” said lay leader Phyllis Boozer.
But that happy reunion was an ending itself. Due to financial constraints that have only gotten worse during the pandemic, the church is selling its historic building and disbanding.
Despite social -distancing requirements, “I succumbed to a few hugs,” she said. “I just could not hold back. I think we have settled in to masking and distancing, but the joy of resurrection cannot be stopped!”
The church “purposely chose Easter as our last service,” Boozer explained. “We’re ending on a high note.”
Child care challenges remain
The ability of worshipers to gather in-person also remains driven by life stage and circumstance. Few churches are offering child care of any kind yet due to social distancing requirements.
In Dallas, Patricia Anderson and her husband, David, are the parents of three young boys. They are faithful members of Wilshire Baptist Church, where an online Easter service was offered, along with three in-person parking lot services — among the nine Holy Week worship services offered in various forms.
“Wilshire had outside services, but, quite simply, our family with three little kids is not developmentally ready for attending church even outside until we have child care,” she said. “We really had to figure out new ways to celebrate this year. Last year we were mourning (the death of a loved one), so this was honestly our first pandemic Easter.”
Torn between the reality of being a potential distraction to others at an in-person service yet wanting to instill in their boys the religious — and not just the secular — meaning of the day, they made their own script.
“We tried to do ‘church on the couch,’ but unfortunately had about as much success as we have had the past year (meaning spurts of watching between parenting while our kids destroy the house). We made it through the worship, but by the time we rewound the sermon for the fourth time we honestly just gave up. Even still, the worship alone was so refreshing it makes me excited to one day return to church in person.”
It was the music that lifted her spirits, she said, and specifically the soloist who sang Because He Lives. “One of the songs talked about the joy of a newborn baby and how praise to God that he is there for that baby as they grow up. As the parent to a child with developmental delays, even just that snippet heard while passing out goldfish spoke right to my heart.”
As they cleaned up the three-boy destruction of the house that happened during the online service, Anderson and her husband “decided that God is just going to have to understand that our family isn’t a fit for sitting and doing church on the couch. God will also have to understand that this is the best we can do this year to celebrate him. The good news, though, is absolutely God knows, and our best is absolutely good enough.”