BOSTON (AP) – For many American Christians, this weekend was the first time since 2019 that they gathered in person on Easter Sunday, a welcome opportunity to celebrate one of the holiest days of the year side by side with other congregations.
Notable events included a sunrise mass at. 6 outdoors near the waterfront in southern Boston and a merry, hugging worship service in St. Peter Claver, a historic black congregation in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Another predominantly black congregation, Watson Grove Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, had hoped for an outdoor worship service in a downtown park. But rain forced a last-minute plan change, and about 700 masked worshipers met instead in the church sanctuary for what senior pastor John Faison said was by far their largest indoor gathering during the pandemic.
“We had not seen such an audience in two years,” Faison said. “The eyes lit up. People were just fine.”
The pandemic broke out in the country in March 2020, just before Easter, forcing many churches to resort to online or TV worship. Many continued to hold virtual services last spring after a deadly winter wave of coronavirus and as vaccination campaigns continued to gain momentum. But this year, more churches opened their doors to Easter services with few COVID-19 restrictions, in line with broader societal trends.
Among them were Catholic parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston, which since June last year have again demanded that most churchgoers attend the Mass in person – although with health risks they can still see from a distance, and pastors have been asked to create space for social distance in the churches.
MC Sullivan, head of health care for the Archdiocese, said celebrating Mass together is important for how Catholics profess their faith. Church attendance has been rising, and parishioners are excited to gather again to commemorate the resurrection of Christ.
“It has been absolutely wonderful to see how well-attended the fair is right now. “It seems to have brought many people back to the idea of what is important to them,” she said.
At St. Peter Claver and St. Paul there was cheering, applause and cheering on the wooden pews as Pastor Joseph Gifford told more than 200 believers that the church’s usual signs of peace were back – no more pandemic-era-nodding or gentle handshakes.
“The place just explodes,” said longtime parishioner Lynette Graham. “When he said we could do it, people were all over the church,” and hugged each other.
Another highlight of the service: the first performance of its Cameroonian choir – with its lively drumming and West African melodies – since the hit of the pandemic.
“We’re back and he’s risen and it’s huge,” said choir leader Brendan Banteh. “The company in our culture is very festive, as we are one in the church – the choir, the pastor, the people. Not being able to go to church had created an interruption that we had never experienced before. “
Purpose Church, a non-denominational congregation in Pomona, 30 miles east of Los Angeles, had held its Easter services virtually or outdoors for the past two years due to the pandemic.
On Sunday, nearly 4,000 congregations came in person to the church’s newly renovated shrine for three morning services, with many still watching virtually and others sitting outside watching the proceedings on a 40-foot LED screen. This was also the first service in two years with as many as 150 members of choir, band and orchestra, said Tina Tong, worship producer for the 152-year-old church.
“It’s a sweet homecoming in so many ways,” she said. “We gather in our new space, which is also special.”
A much smaller congregation in Southern California – about 25 people – gathered on the beach in the Pacific Palisades for a sunrise worship service conducted by Pastor Joe Ramirez, founder of Revive LA, an inclusive Lutheran congregation.
“We saw the sun rise, talked about the resurrection, and shared the message that hope lives on,” he said.
Because of the pandemic, “Our congregation has become accustomed to being outside because people are more comfortable and they can bring their pets,” Ramirez added. “We had three dogs for the morning service.”
In Minnesota’s twin cities, there were different approaches to COVID precautions when Easter arrived.
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, which became a community hub amid protests over George Floyd’s killing in 2020, ended its mask claim from Palm Sunday and returned to shoulder-to-shoulder communion by the rail instead of on the church chairs.
Ingrid Rasmussen, the pastor, said that participation in Easter was expected to correspond to the level before the pandemic – but divided between those who sit in church chairs and those who join in from afar.
Christ Church Lutheran, an architectural landmark also in Minneapolis, took a cautious approach to loosening COVID protocols – masks and measures for social distance remain in place.
“The gift of being in the same physical space for the first time in three years is so earthy and beautiful,” said Miriam Samuelson-Roberts, the pastor. “We do not take it for granted.”
Hundreds of people lit candles in the great St. Paul Cathedral, after Catholic Archbishop Bernard Hebda blessed the bonfire and lit the Easter candle to open the Easter vigil late Saturday.
The century-old cathedral resounded with congregational singing as candles flickered in the darkness. Far beyond 8pm, gaping children were fascinated by the small flames and the cantors far more than masked – the archdiocese repealed all COVID protocols on April 1, while the faithful and individual parishes could retain their precautions if they wished.
In New York City, the Middle Collegiate Church gathered for its first personal Easter service since 2019, but not in their historic Manhattan Church, which was destroyed by fire two December ago.
As they rebuild, they share space in the East End Temple – at a time when the synagogue is celebrating its own holy days of Easter.
Rev. Jacqui Lewis, Middle College senior minister, said attendance at the temple with 190 people was limited to 150. Those leading the service, plus choir singers and musicians, took quick COVID tests.
Dell’Orto reported from St. Paul, Minnesota, and Bharath of Orange County, California. Associated Press reporters Luis Andres Henao of Pennsylvania and David Crary of New York also contributed.
The Associated Press’s religious coverage receives support through the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.