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Churches stream Easter worship into homes in Covid-19 era

Empty pews, honking car horns and home-office sermons marked the virtual Easter Sunday services that appeared Sunday morning on computers and other electronic devices throughout Western New York.

Area churches celebrated the biggest Christian holiday of the year in a manner few people could have imagined before the novel coronavirus pandemic.

True Bethel Baptist Church livestreamed on its website an outdoor service from the church parking lot, where Pastor Darius G. Pridgen preached from a makeshift stage and encouraged people who showed up to stay in their cars, keep their windows rolled up and lay on their horns as a form of affirmation.

“That’s how we’re saying ‘Amen’ right now,” said Pridgen, who wore a surgical mask and gloves as he preached after recovering himself from Covid-19.

Pridgen acknowledged it wasn’t a normal Easter, but he said the uncertainty and chaos of current times was akin to what the earliest followers of Jesus experienced.

“I do believe it probably depicts what Resurrection Sunday was like when Jesus died and rose again,” he said. “We have made Resurrection Sunday into a day of nice clothes, pressed hair, patent leather shoes. But that’s not really Resurrection Sunday. We’ve made Resurrection Sunday as if it should be easy to have, but that’s not the history of Resurrection Sunday.”

Virtual services began shortly after sunrise. At First United Methodist Church on Baynes Street, lay leader Scott Johnson conducted a simple 7 a.m. service in the sanctuary that included a candle lighting, six Bible readings and an organist playing “Amazing Grace.”

He then gave a short sermon emphasizing that although we may be feeling very mortal at this time, we see in Christ the one who has overcome the power of death.

“We may think we live in a time ruled by death,” said Johnson. “We think death is our reality, but as God shows us, there is no situation in which death has the final word. God has the final word. And that is what we celebrate this morning.”

At St. Benedict Church in Eggertsville, Monsignor Robert Zapfel celebrated a 45-minute Mass from an altar decorated with Easter flowers and candles. He was joined by an organist and singer. The Mass was streamed live on the parish website at 8 a.m. using a single stationary camera.

In his homily, Zapfel reflected on St. Paul’s message of Christ’s resurrection as “the belief that gives significance and meaning to everything else we believe.”

It’s why Paul also wrote that through their baptisms, the followers of Jesus share in his resurrection – not just when they die, but during their lifetimes, as well, said Zapfel, pastor of St. Leo Church and temporary administrator of St. Benedict Church.

“Usually we think about it as what happens to us after we die and we go to heaven and we live forever with God,” he said. “But baptism’s effects are here now. Baptism’s effect is in our lives now.”

At St. Joseph University Church near the University at Buffalo's South Campus, the Rev. Jacob Ledwon described a first Easter that featured not crowded churches, but fearful disciples hiding inside their houses.

“Doesn’t that sound familiar?  Doesn’t that sound like a description of the world we find ourselves living in today?” said Ledwon. “Like those first disciples locked in their homes, we, too, wonder whether we will ever be able to live again.  And yet, like them, it is precisely the fear and anxiety of this crisis that offers us the opportunity for a deeper and clearer perspective on what is truly important in life.”

The Mass, held inside a chapel at St. Joseph University, included a singing guitarist and another singer, Ledwon and Deacon Paul Emerson, all of who were recorded by a moving camera.

Area Episcopalians were invited to an Easter service with Bishop Sean W. Rowe and other clergy from the Episcopal Dioceses of Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania.

It was conducted online via Zoom, allowing Rowe and the other clergy to stay socially distanced in their own offices, while communicating with each other and more than 1,000 parishioners who signed on from their homes.

“I can’t remember a time where I wasn’t in a church on Easter Sunday in a building ready and excited, with the smell of Easter lilies and all that comes with our own Easter traditions,” Rowe said.

He wore his clerical collar and spoke in front of a computer on a desk in his home office in Erie, Pa.

“This Easter is different,” said Rowe. “But I think in some ways, as sad as I am about that fact, as sad as I am about the way the context of the world has changed, especially over the past few weeks, I wonder if this Easter isn’t more like the first Easter.”

The Chapel at Crosspoint, a non-denominational church, also used Zoom to interact with worshippers at various times throughout an 11 a.m. service that was livestreamed on the website, Facebook and YouTube from its main sanctuary in Getzville.

“We all, in this day and age, have been thinking about our own mortality. We’ve been thinking about what it means to be frail, what it means to be fragile people, when we see running death totals on our screens all the time,” said Pastor Jerry Gillis.

“I want to remind you of something: The resurrection of Jesus says that there’s hope beyond this life, that because he raised from the dead, we, too, when we put our faith in him, though we might die physically, we will be raised with him spiritually, and one day when he returns we will be raised with him in a resurrected body," he said. "This is the great hope of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.”

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