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Rev. Jose Parathanal conducts Mass at St. Thomas More Parish in Narragansett on March 27. This weekend marks the Easter holiday for Christian denominations and many local religious leaders say their groups are slowly easing back to in-person services.

Just a year ago Easter and Passover services transformed into online-only gatherings, but liberation — a shared aspect of both celebrations — is now bringing a breakaway for some to have full or partial in-person get-togethers.

Clergy in a few South County denominations reported this week they will have indoor services this year. Others said, however, they will continue livestream, recorded services or hybrid high-tech with limited in-person meetings.

“We lamented having to spend Passover Seders away from loved ones, again!” exclaimed Rabbi Ethan Adler of Narragansett’s Congregation Beth David about last week’s Passover marking the Jews’ liberation from Egyptian slavery .

“However, some families were able to have some family members join them physically — which was joyful,” he added.

Easter, celebrated this Sunday, is one of the high holy days for Christians. It establishes the principal tenet of faith that Jesus Christ died, but also rose from the dead. This resurrection promises liberation from sin and death.

The mix of the delivery of services nonetheless highlights a shared common theme of deliverance – both real and in faith – from the oppression of COVID. Churches are struggling to escape the confines of solitary worship and return to something united and joint.

It also demonstrates COVID’s long-lasting stamp of fear disrupting cultural and religious traditions and routines once an everyday part of people’s lives.

As these holidays come in a pandemic-infused society, more of the faithful also seem to be departing their churches and synagogues nationally and not because of COVID.

A Gallup Poll finding released this week found that Americans’ membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend.

In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999. Many factors are attributed to the decline, according to Gallop, primarily including an increasing number of Americans who express no religious preference.


Bringing People Together

In South County, a local clergy association is attempting this year to keep strong the glue binding those attached to their religion.

It wants to bridge some middle ground in the divide that pandemic fears have caused between distance and togetherness. On Good Friday, The South County Clergy Association will hold an outdoor and in-person ecumenical service at Saugatucket Park in Wakefield.

“We wanted to find a way to reach across denominations and provide a safe space for our community to unite for a time of worshipful reflection,” said the Rev. Fred Evenson, pastor of the Peace Dale Congregational Church. The association includes ministers from area churches.

He said that those wanting to attend should join others at the Saugatucket River walkway bridge near 327 Main St., next to The Contemporary Theater Company and the Bell Block.

“Holy week seemed a perfect time for us to gather as the wider body of Christ. We will carry the cross over the bridge and into Saugatucket Park at noon on Friday where we will reflect on Jesus’s last ‘seven words’ and consider what Christ might be saying to us today,” he said.

The words are seven expressions of Jesus Christ on the cross as recorded in Scripture. These words, say Christian religious leaders, teach lessons about Jesus and his character as shown during his dying hours.

They include “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do;” “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise;” and “Jesus said to his mother: ‘Woman, this is your son.’  Then he said to the disciple: ‘This is your mother.’”

Evenson said that each participating clergy member will offer an understanding of those words with a contemporary insight.

“Masked and socially distanced, we will listen for the voice of God, through the Word, music, prayer, and silence. It’s difficult to experience the transformative joy and hope of Easter without first going through Good Friday,” Evenson said.

In Narragansett, an outdoor procession is also planned on Friday by St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Church, said Rev. Marcel Taillon.

In the Catholic tradition, it will mark the Stations of the Cross, which that congregation follows. The Stations of the Cross or the Way of the Cross are also known as the Way of Sorrows or the Via Crucis.

It refers to a series of images depicting Jesus Christ on the day of his crucifixion and has accompanying prayers.


Passover, Easter Messages

COVID and the pandemic could slip into Easter and Passover messages this year, but may not have as prominent a role as last year, several clergy said.

The traditional message may blend with more central themes of hope in life in general. This is a marked change from last year when uncertainty and a fast-spreading virus killing people gave it top billing.

A year ago clergy throughout South County confronted crafting a message of hope while struggling with different ways to deliver it during COVID-19’s ravaging introduction to the country.

Their congregations separated from them physically needed spiritual cultivation and attention. The novel disease was stealing social connections, family income and a general sense of stability.

In addition, clergy said at the time, it challenged ministers, rabbis, imams and priests to draw on courage within their own beliefs in faith to help others surrounded by fear and loss.

Some of these same clergy said this year that Passover and Easter teach that hope can help people overcome difficulties and this figures into resilience against the pandemic.

They also noted differences this year include changes in national policy having more forceful direction about combating COVID-19, a nationwide vaccine effort now underway and acceptance of living with the pandemic’s effects.   

Adler, whose congregation has not met since the pandemic began, noted that “Passover is a story about overcoming slavery, and that we will overcome Covid-19 as well.”  

Clay Berry, pastor of Wakefield Baptist Church accented that point. Berry’s congregation has been meeting in person.

“My aim on Easter is to reinforce the hope we are offered through Jesus’s resurrection, which includes the prospect of new life after severe loss like death or that brought on by events such as a pandemic,” he said.

Hope will also be part of Rev. Robert P. Travis’s Easter message, but perhaps without much about the pandemic. His congregation will have in-person Eucharist in a parish hall with livestreamed services that are recorded for later viewing.

“We’ve talked about it (COVID-19) so much in sermons at different points, I think the resurrection message is going to focus less on Covid and more on other areas of rebirth in our lives,” said the pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Wakefield and Chapel of St. John the Divine, Saunderstown.

Taillon seemed to agree.

“I am not sure about preaching on the pandemic and will pray about that. I do wish people spoke and thought of Christ as often as they speak and think about vaccines,” said the pastor. His church has both in-person, livestreamed and recorded services.

Evenson said, “Last Easter I didn’t imagine we’d be doing this a whole year later. I feel like we’ve been in exile.”

He said that he may relate the story of a hospitalized man in an intensive care unit. After he improved he wrote on a window about his gratitude for the nurses, doctors and others who cared for him.

“For me, that is transformation, that is resurrection, that is Easter. It mirrors the impact of Christ. He impacted people on such a deep level that they were transformed by the way he lived,” Evenson explained.

“He was transformed and moved by their love, changed for the better,” said the pastor whose church will have only its recorded service. It also has an 16-step “story walk”  in a grove by the church. It tells the story about Jesus’s crucifixion.


Vaccine Advice in Messages

Much like whether they would mention COVID, they also approached preaching about getting the CVOID vaccine in differing ways.

Taillon said that “Catholics have some reservations about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and some are not comfortable to receive it. It is something each Catholic should pray about and decide in their conscience.”

Providence Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin says Catholics should, if possible, avoid the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine because it is made with cells produced from abortions, which the church opposes.

The preference would be having with the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines because they are manufactured without stem cells, he said.

The conservative bishop conceded, however, that if Catholics cannot obtain a different vaccine they will not tread over church teachings on morality.

Adler said that once his congregation resumes indoor services, “We will ask that only those who are fully vaccinated join us.”

Travis, Berry and Evenson said that they are encouraging all members of their congregations to get vaccinated, but are not yet requiring it to attend services.

“It is the responsible thing to do when it comes to loving your neighbor,” Evenson said, adding, “It’s pretty obvious to me it’s a responsibility that we all should bear.”

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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