Coronavirus: Why some US churches are still open this Easter

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Worshippers in St Agnes Church, New York City, last monthImage source, Getty Images
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Worshippers in New York last month

President Trump had said he'd like to see all the churches full on Easter Sunday. That's not going to happen, but not all of them will be empty.

What does Easter mean in the midst of a pandemic?

That's a question with which clergy across the United States are wrestling, both logistically and spiritually. And one that's triggered political battles over the right to gather in houses of worship at a time when the country has virtually shut down to defeat a contagious disease.

"We did the live stream service on a temporary basis for the (initial) 15 days that President Trump asked for," says James Buntrock, an associate pastor at the Glorious Way Church in Houston, Texas, which is again holding in-person services.

"But when it turned into Holy Week, when it turned into Palm Sunday and now approaching Easter Sunday, this is a special time of year. It's never been shut down, and so we must do this.

Easter is the most important event in the Christian calendar. It draws together all the main themes of the religion - suffering, death, resurrection and redemption. And it draws the most people to church of any time in the year for joyous and often elaborate celebrations.

The vast majority of American churches have adapted to the corona crisis by experimenting with stripped-down live stream or pre-recorded services. Some have begun meeting in their cars in parking lots, or even drive-in movie theatres.

But those that have not closed their buildings say they can protect their members, by checking temperatures, sanitising sanctuaries, and spacing worshippers six feet apart.

And in at least eight states, religious organisations have been granted exemptions from stay-at-home orders as essential services, some after legal and political battles. In Kansas lawmakers revoked the governor's order to limit religious gatherings to 10 people.

Much of the pushback is from those who see any ban on church services as a violation of religious liberties guaranteed by the constitution, although there's debate about the legal basis for this claim.

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A priest in New Orleans conducts socially distant blessings

As for safety, Pastor Buntrock says he would feel a "measure of responsibility" if someone fell ill after attending his service if the church hadn't taken "adequate precautions," but he's convinced it has.

Many Christians, however, are not. They argue that staying out of church is the moral thing to do.

Reverend Nathan Empsall is one of them. He's the director of a grassroots Christian group called Faithful America. It's launched a petition calling for churches to stop meeting in person.

"Suspending in-person worship is not just about protecting those who go to the actual church service," he says.

"It's about protecting the lives of every single grocery store worker, gas station attendant and healthcare worker they meet. It truly is about loving our neighbour and healing the sick, which are things Jesus told us to go do."

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Vice-President Pence tells people to stay at home for Easter

His comments are part of the deeper reflection this year on what Easter is all about, stirred by the corona crisis.

Pastor Buntrock argues corporate worship is essential to fight the virus, because it has spiritual as well as physical impacts.

"When people are gathered together in one place of one accord, worshipping together, the atmosphere, God's presence in that room is different and more powerful than people tend to experience online," he says.

Pastors defiant

  • Hundreds of parishioners flock to services being held by Louisiana pastor Tony Spell, who has been charged with defying the state's ban. He said his church is a place of healing
  • Florida megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne has also fallen foul of authorities for defying the lockdown in Tampa Bay. To a packed audience, he declared: "If you cannot be safe in church, you're in serious trouble"

In Brooklyn, New York, at the epicentre of the pandemic, Reverend David Telfort has a different emphasis on the theological significance of the moment.

He's asking himself what it means to be "celebrating hope in a sea of despair and grief".

"This is an opportunity for us to hang out in the tragedy of Good Friday," he says.

But even the account of the Resurrection, although "incredible," is complex. He'll be responding to today's climate of anxiety and uncertainty by preaching from Mark. The gospel originally ended with three of Jesus's female disciples fleeing the open tomb, bewildered because they couldn't find him and frightened by an angel.

Rev. Telfort's parish, the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, usually celebrates Easter with a double choir and a brass band. This year the constant sound of sirens has taken over.

One of the choir directors, Janis Russell, pauses as another ambulance passes by in the midst of her musings about an Easter without the traditional music.

There will be a soloist on the live stream service and "it will be special and meaningful to everyone," she says, grateful that church members can still be somewhat connected. "I can't imagine what it would be like if we didn't have internet, Zoom and all of these things, where we can at least see a face. We can't touch each other but we can see a face."

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A congregation in Denmark sent selfies for a livestreamed Easter service

She takes a tambourine to the pavement every night at seven o'clock, adding a musical footnote to the moment of the day when New Yorkers unite, shouting from the isolated pockets of their homes in support of health care workers on the front line.

The fact that Holy Week coincides with the pandemic has imbued it with a sombre and emotional quality.

"We will remember how Jesus felt alone in a garden abandoned by his friends as they fell asleep, just the way we feel separated from our friends now," says Rev Empsall.

"And on Good Friday he died in great pain and agony on a cross. Few of his friends were with him, the same way people are dying alone in hospitals now."

This weekend Americans will observe an Easter unlike any they've ever experienced before. And many will also be hearing the familiar Easter story in a new and poignant way.