April 12, 2020 / 10:22 AM / in 2 months

Coronavirus forces U.S. churches to offer Easter Sunday services unlike any before

ATLANTA (Reuters) - U.S. church leaders peppered their Easter homilies with references to the coronavirus on Sunday, in masses held online, on television and even in parking lots to people sheltering in cars to maintain social distancing during the pandemic.

For the world’s largest Christian population, the coronavirus pandemic has meant observing an Easter Sunday unlike any Americans have lived through before.

“Today as we hear the Easter bells as a call to solidarity among all the members of our community in the face of the pandemic, we might respond to witness to the power of the Resurrection, the power of love that is stronger than death, and faith in a provident God who can always bring good out of evil,” Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley said in his homily on BostonCatholic.org.

Governors and health authorities across the United States have broadly asked residents to avoid gathering in large numbers, leading to the closure of schools, businesses and churches.

The COVID-19 respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus has claimed more than 21,300 lives across the United States and infected more than 525,000 people.

Major U.S. religious institutions, including Roman Catholic dioceses and Protestant churches, have found alternatives to safely celebrate the holiest day on the Christian calendar.

In Easley, South Carolina, the 2,200 members of the Rock Springs Baptist Church were among the many U.S. churchgoers who turned to technology and the airwaves for help.

Reverend Jim Cawthon, 46, said he expected hundreds to spend Easter services in their cars in his megachurch’s parking lot, watching the proceedings on big outdoor screens and listening to its broadcast over local radio.

More will likely watch online, which Cawthon said should be easier as the church recently upgraded its video and internet systems.

Empty seats are seen during an Easter service at St. Patrick's Cathedral as the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 12, 2020. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

“Just prior to this all going crazy, we were already set up,” Cawthon said. “It’s all about the cross and celebrating Easter even in a pandemic.”

Some older adults in retirement communities celebrated Holy Week by playing music and video broadcasts of services. Some communities held contests, asking residents, for instance, to decorate golf carts for Easter and leave them parked outside for judging, instead of holding annual golf cart Easter parades.

Curtis James, a youth pastor at the Tate Springs Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, dreamed up the idea of holding a safe Easter egg hunt for children with the online videogame Minecraft. Other churches have joined in as the plan garnered national attention.

The Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has held a sunrise Easter service for almost 250 years, weathering even the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, as well as the two World Wars. But for the pandemic, the service was canceled. It was to be replaced by an online and locally broadcast service with just a preacher and few choir and band members providing music.

A handful of churches have bucked social distancing rules aimed at slowing the disease’s spread and planned to go ahead with in-person services on Sunday, with some pastors predicting divine protection from the disease.

Most Catholic dioceses across the United States shut down all such live services, however.

Archbishop Jose Gomez of the Los Angeles diocese wrote to priests and parishioners across the nation online to hold steadfast.

“Future generations will look back on this as the long Lent of 2020, a time when disease and death suddenly darkened the whole earth,” Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles diocese wrote to priests and parishioners across the nation online.

“This Holy Week will be different. Our churches may be closed but Christ is not quarantined and his Gospel is not in chains.”

Slideshow (8 Images)

In Columbus, Georgia, the St. Anne Catholic Church found a unique way to fill up its pews for Easter Sunday.

More than 650 members of the 1,500-strong congregation sent in “selfie” photos of themselves that the priests taped to the pews, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

“Now we look out and see faces,” pastor Robert Schlageter told the newspaper.

Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Scott Malone, Rosalba O'Brien and Tom Brown

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