I may refer to 2020 as “The Year Without an Easter.” That is certainly how it felt to me, at least.
I had been serving as pastor of Ardmore Baptist Church for less than seven months before the global pandemic swept across the country and fundamentally altered our lives. My first Easter with Ardmore Baptist Church, I preached to my laptop’s webcam.
For all pastors, the effects of quarantine robbed us of some of the basic tools we use to care for our congregations. But I think it was especially difficult on new pastors. I had just gotten to the point where I was matching faces with names, and then I entered into a time in which half those faces were covered with masks.
It has been hard to be in ministry during this time. Our congregation has said goodbye to beloved saints, and we have been forced to do so without the usual embraces, hand-holding and bereavement casserole dishes that serve as the healing rituals for the faithful. Pastors have had to manage diverse congregational perspectives on mask-wearing, social-distancing and the efficacy and safety of vaccines. Most stressful of all, some in our congregations have chosen to politicize the pandemic and leave congregations who they feel are “living in fear” rather than seeing safety measures for what they are: ways to live out Christ’s calling to love our neighbors.
All that was swirling in my head, heart and soul as Ardmore Baptist Church approached its first in-person worship service March 21. I had lots of questions bouncing around within me: Would people abide by the mask mandate? Would people maintain social distancing? Would people register for worship beforehand as we asked?
But these questions also informed other questions: With all of these restrictions in place, will people hear a fresh word from God? Will their souls sing even if their mouths cannot? Will these people whom I love hear words of good news?
“My first Easter with Ardmore Baptist Church, I preached to my laptop’s webcam.”
Admittedly, I did not know if I was prepared to hear any good news myself. My soul was dried out and tired. I was tired of preaching to a laptop. I was tired of watching people who knew better post false information on Facebook about COVID precautions and vaccinations. I was tired of occasionally walking into our large sanctuary with the weight of its emptiness pressing down on my heart.
My anxiety tends to be manifested in completing tasks. I worked out my nervousness by carefully shuffling my sermon notes, lint-rolling my suit and repeatedly adjusting my name tag. A few minutes before the service was to start, I made my way to the choir room to have a word of prayer with them before filing into the sanctuary together.
Generally, before a service starts at our church, there is some piano or organ music playing as people find their seats. As the choir and I neared the entrance door to the sanctuary, I heard no music. “Oh, great,” I thought, “on our first Sunday back we haven’t even started the service and things are already going wrong.”
As I walked into the sanctuary, a sound met my ears. It wasn’t music, but it was lyrical. It was the sound of conversation. As people were filing to their seats, I heard people from the congregation greeting one another. Many of them had not seen each other in more than a year. They were smiling and waving at one another. Multiple people were wiping away tears. Others were sitting in reverent silence in that sacred space they have not seen in more than a year.
“As I walked into the sanctuary, a sound met my ears.”
Before taking my seat on the platform, I simply stood and watched and listened. I saw that all the people were wearing their masks and they were keeping their distance. I saw people whom I knew were fully vaccinated and yet manifested those safety measures to ensure they would not carry the virus to their sister or brother.
In those few moments of watching people of all ages take their faith seriously by gathering together to worship and by loving one another, I felt something I had not felt in quite some time in that room: peace.
It might have been the Fifth Sunday of Lent, but in that moment I was feeling anything other than somber. The year 2020 might be “The Year Without an Easter” but 2021, for me at least, could very well be “The Year With Two Easters.”
Tyler Tankersley serves as senior pastor of Ardmore Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. This article originally appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal and is used here with permission.