Clergy around South County are planning Easter services and messages in ways that bring together new technology to deliver today’s especially poignant theme about life and death in the age of an uncontrolled virus.
“This virus is frightening, there is great loss of life, security and people’s ability to live whole lives...many are suffering illness and deprivation,” said Rev. Sharon Ann Hope, interim pastor of the Kingston Congregational Church, about what is shaping her Easter message.
Just two months ago many never thought about the influence of daily news and government reports showing the forceful march throughout the country of a virulent disease taking the lives of thousands and infecting hundreds in Rhode Island.
They never imagined, many said, that for the first time their churches would be closed for this highest of holy days celebrating Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead in the shadow of the continuous process of dying from a pandemic.
“Easter is all about hope. On (Good) Friday, all hope was lost,” said the Rev. Sharon Baker at the United Methodist Church in North Kingstown.
“But on Sunday, when the tomb was empty, a new hope was born. We are now in Friday mode,” she said. “But we know from the resurrection that there will come a day when we can gather once again.”
Because of social distancing orders, clergy are following other professionals around them, such as medical doctors and dentists using telehealth for online conferencing, and clergy are adopting “telechurch” for participation along with livestreaming and recording services.
These are becoming the norm for these ministers, whose usual clasped hand out, personal embrace and in-person meetings help a troubled soul or be the personal tour de force in their congregation.
“Like in all disasters, we hope in God, we believe that even in this suffering we are held close to God’s heart and that is the message of Easter,” said Rev. Hope.
The smell of fear
Nonetheless, there’s no escaping the smell of fear replacing the sweet smell of Easter flowers often found in many churches. No matter the method of delivering the message, this fear needs to be addressed in the Easter homilies and preaching, clergy said.
In a twist of irony, Easter is one of the high holy days for Christian faith followers because it establishes the principal tenet of faith that Jesus Christ died, but also rose from the dead. That is not happening physically with Coronavirus victims and paints a sharp call to faith for believers about those dying suddenly.
So, these and other clergy throughout South County have confronted crafting a message of hope, finding new and different ways to deliver it to a distanced flock also in need of spiritual cultivation and attention.
In addition, they said, it is an especially challenging moment for ministers and priests as they draw on courage within their own faith to help others surrounded by fear and living in loss. A stalking virus seemingly is robbing them of social connections, family income and a general sense of stability and certainty.
A particular group affected in the spiritual sense – and one target for the Easter message – is the drifting-away younger millennial generation. Many lack strong religious underpinnings found among the older baby boomers of their parents’ generation, clergy said.
Four in ten millennials now say they are religiously unaffiliated, according to the Pew Research Center. In fact, millennials (those between the ages of 23 and 38) are now almost as likely to say they have no religion as they are to identify as Christian, according to a New York Times report on the issue.
“The reality is prior generations had an eye toward eternity. My generation by and large does not,” said 34-year-old Rev. Caleb Morgan of the First Baptist Church of Narragansett. Easter this year is bringing thoughts of death into the lives of many of them perhaps for the first time by making them look at their own mortality or that of their children, he said.
He explained how this figures into crafting his message.
“It still has a blurry sense of, yeah, there’s a God out there or there’s a God-thing kind of moving, but there’s not a clear sense of a personal God whom you are depending on, like you would depend on like a parent. So that makes people immensely vulnerable,” Morgan said.
He said that on a mental, emotional and spiritual level, “I don’t expect my generation is prepared to handle this. “
For example, he said, his generation of up-and-coming leaders in society, family and business will say they believe in a God or spiritual deity. However, when asked about the shape, sound and feel of that deity there’s an immediate disconnect.
“My generation has, for whatever reason, felt that just asserting there’s a God out there, but nobody really knows whether they’re all basically the same or there’s a bunch of ‘em. There’s no burden of concern or heart-felt pursuit of ‘I need to know what’s true about this,’” Morgan said.
“I can’t imagine that the blurry sense of God being out there, pie-in-the-sky, helps when someone who you love, who otherwise you would expect to be still living, dies because of Coronavirus,” he said.
Morgan added that millennials who are non-believers don’t have a “sense of God to hold them up and help explain that situation, or help you look beyond that situation or give you clear hope for something beyond death.”
For older generations, whether they experience the disease directly or vicariously through reports about infections and deaths from the virus, the Easter message will also be about their more imminent mortality, he and other clergy said.
“Many people today live in the moment and are more worried about their 401K than what happens when this life comes to an end. That’s changing. This virus is making them see that and in a time when Easter brings us to look at it through the story of the resurrection,” Morgan said.
“I’ve been really challenged,” said the young clergyman who has never experienced this kind of uncontrolled natural predator turning upside down his understanding of the world.
Leading the Flock
“It’s not just about prayer and having services, it’s also about leadership. People are looking to me for that, for help in understanding,” he said about both the importance of both content and delivery for his Easter message.
Social distancing is bringing new dimensions to being a leader. Gatherings both in churches and among groups of their faithful are barred. Home visits have been difficult and hospital, nursing home and rehabilitation center visits banned for nearly everyone except immediate family.
Leadership is calling on skills used beyond usual crises, there’s now trauma. It comes from suspected illness from the virus in members of the congregation or their families. It’s also laced with fears of seclusion, depression, abandonment and uncertainty.
Then there are the households rocked by instability from job losses, businesses just closing and plummeting retirement incomes.
These and other points are important for the Easter messages so that people feel some comfort and sympathy, said clergy because nothing is the same as two months ago.
“There is nothing normal — very little normal — about my work routine and my preparation and my freedom of thought,” said Morgan whose own worries now include a wife, a hospital emergency room nurse, and both of them staying healthy to care for their two very young children.
She has been accepted for a two-week tour of medical work in one of New York City’s hardest-hit hospitals filled with infected and dying patients. It has raised the question of her dying from the disease.
“I said to her, ‘You realize the potential out there that you could die, how horrible that is, and are you okay with that?’ She said, ‘Yes, I am.” I knew that would be her answer,” said the minister who has been married to his wife, Hannah, for about six years.
“There’s no avoiding the leadership responsibilities around this crisis,” he said, pausing the telephone interview for nearly a minute.
“That just takes a lot of mental, emotional and spiritual energy that I don’t usually have to navigate,” said the long-time student of the minister’s job. His father, the Rev. Terry Morgan, was pastor for 18 years at Pawtucket’s Woodlawn Baptist Church.
“When I am looking at my laptop, I am looking at myself,” Morgan said bluntly, not in a gathering with his congregation and seeing their faces. He has done recorded services for the last few weeks. It will be the same for Easter (fbcnarr.com) rather than beachside sunrise services.
Other clergy have also faced personal choices that have influenced their ministry and perceptions and understandings that will shape their message to followers.
For instance, the Rev. John Unsworth, pastor of St. Bernard Roman Catholic Church in North Kingstown (stbernardnk.org), faced this pressing choice of dealing with his own needs and those of the congregation.
The 70-year-old priest said that he spends a few days each week away from the parish “because I am old enough to be at ‘high risk’ of infection” and does not want to over-expose himself. It troubles him to do it, but that is now a realistic part of his ministry, he added.
He also said he wants his parishioners to stay in touch with each other and to celebrate in a virtual way online and through Masses available on the church website, such as the Easter services.
“I also encourage them (parishioners) to make this time more solemn in their own homes by placing a cloth on a table with a candle and a crucifix or a bible when they watch the services on their TV or computer so that their homes become ‘little churches’ welcoming the risen savior,” he said.
Easter Day Changed
Messages will also deal with the forced elimination of large amounts of commercialism because of social distancing and limited numbers of people allowed in stores, and decisions by families to postpone the annual Easter Sunday dinner gatherings.
All these restrictions dim the mood on the day, clergy said.
“It breaks my heart that we can’t gather, said the Rev. Sharon Baker at United Methodist Church (nkumcri.org) in North Kingstown as she looked at the traditional family time together at Easter.
“Families are more likely to worship together at Easter. Building community is what drew me to parish ministry and it’s hard to create connection when we’re all home. Still, we know that our bond is strong enough to weather the separation,” Baker said.
She also said that she will livestream services for Easter as well as have digital presentations at each service supplemented with music, scripture, and prayers. The sessions will be recorded and posted on the church’s website.
Unsworth said, “Without all the large family dinners, new clothes and chocolate eggs, we are left with the core meaning of this great feast, that Jesus died for our sins, is risen from the dead and that where he has gone, we hope to follow.”
At Kingston Congregational (kingcongchurch.org), interim Pastor Rev. Sharon Hope said, “As a clergyperson it is difficult and sad to stand in the pulpit on Sundays and look out at the sea of empty pews.”
“Our hope and faith in and our love for God is what allows us to not only “keep it together” but to thrive and even more importantly to help others thrive...to share the Good News through our acts of love and solidarity with the suffering,” she said.
She said that for Holy Week and Easter services she will livestream and record them, making them available on Facebook and the church website.
“The congregation is in their homes watching on FaceBook or on our website and there is great comfort in knowing they are safe and that we as a community are doing the best we can do to “love our neighbor as ourselves” by protecting each other through distancing,” Hope said.
All clergy noted that those interested either in their own church or another service should check individual churches’ websites and social media sites, such as Facebook, for online livestreaming or recorded services.