The Rev. Dana Allen Walsh recalls how painful it felt last Easter when COVID-19 left her Merrimack Valley church and other congregations suddenly unable to gather in their accustomed way and whole communities seemingly devoid of life.
“It was more stark than any Easter we had before,” said Walsh, senior pastor at South Church in Andover. “I went around town and took black-and-white photos of all the empty places -- empty playgrounds, empty school buildings, empty churches.”
But with an end to the pandemic now in sight, Walsh said that gloom seems to be lifting, making this year’s Easter’s celebrations feel more connected to the hopeful spirit of the season.
“I think Easter speaks so well to this moment,” she said. “On Easter morning we will still be bearing the scars of this year, there are people who died, people who have experienced the loss of jobs, tremendous pain. Yet still we are resilient. We lean into hope, lean into what is possible -- that is the story of our faith.”
Across Greater Boston, congregations are observing Easter within the now-familiar constraints of the pandemic, which depending on the church and denomination have ranged from holding services entirely remotely to conducting limited-capacity in-person services streamed live, to worshipping outdoors. Other church activities have followed similar makeshift formats.
But even as they acknowledge the hardship posed by those limitations, and the still fresh trauma many feel from the loss of life and economic devastation of the past year, some church leaders say there is also some reason to feel relief and even joy this season.
“God has kept us going through a multiplicity of pandemics,” said the Rev. J. Anthony Lloyd, pastor of the Greater Framingham Community Church. “We have COVID, we have hatred, we have racism. But we want to praise God for allowing us to persevere as a church family and a community.”
Lloyd said the pandemic has also shown the strength and resilience of his church, a predominantly Black congregation that also includes many Latinos and African immigrants.
“They’ve cared really well for each other,” he said, “taken the sadness they feel at not being together, the grief and loneliness, and channeled that energy into reaching out to one another, cooking meals for one another, checking in on one another.”
And there is a feeling among his congregants that the worst of the pandemic has passed, Lloyd said. “They can believe the vaccine will hopefully now straighten things out. They are hopeful they are going to be able to gather again soon.”
The Rev. Paul Soper, secretary for evangelization and discipleship for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, said there is a sense of cautious optimism among area parishes that the pandemic is receding. But he said it is the biblical meaning of Easter that inspires hope this season
“Easter is a time when we celebrate Jesus rising from the dead. There is nothing more hopeful than that,” said Soper, who is also co-administrator of St. Margaret Mary parish in Westwood.
“Christ is always our hope. Christ is our light in the midst of darkness,” said the Rev. Matt Williams, pastor of the St. John the Baptist and St. Josephparishes in Quincy. Noting that every generation and family has “crosses to bear, " he said parishioners “need a message of hope regardless of whether there is a pandemic or not.”
The Rev. Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, said the past year has been “incredibly hard” for pastors and their congregations, with the logistical challenges of keeping their congregations connected just one of the difficulties.
“Every pastor I know has buried more people this year than we have in our lifetimes,” she said. “And this is not the only pandemic we are living through. We are living through the incredible pandemic of racism and sexism. We have lived through a coup attempt. Many of our parishioners are living through incredible economic uncertainties.”
The inability to be present with one another has also been a source of pain and stress for all congregations, Everett said. “I want to pray by a hospital bed, not over an iPad.”
“There is something so wonderful about being together,” said Walsh, “about greeting each other, about singing hymns with each other, hearing each other’s voices, seeing kids run around after church with Oreos in their mouths. And we miss those important moments, those rituals when someone dies, that chance to grieve together.”
But church leaders say there is inspiration to be found in how churches have quickly adapted to the unique circumstances.
“It’s been a difficult year. At the same time it has presented some fascinating opportunities,” said Soper, the Boston archdiocesan official. “Most parishes have used the year to significantly build out their capacity to reach out to people by social media. And lots of people are going to church every weekend and are doing so safely.”
The state allowed houses of worship to reopen with restrictions last May 23-24. Soper said nearly all Boston-area Catholic parishes now offer in-person Masses, though because social distancing requirements significantly limit their capacity, they are also live-streaming them. Some parishes hold outdoor services.
At the two Quincy churches, “We have tried to stay ahead of the curve and be very creative in maintaining our relationships with our people,” Williams said.
In addition to limited-capacity indoor services at both locations, St. John holds outdoor services each Sunday, with a priest presiding from a makeshift rooftop altar, a format that will be followed on Easter. For the outdoor services, parishioners sit in their cars or -- if it’s warm -- on lawn chairs.
Among other work-arounds, drive-through confessions are offered at St. John the Baptist for both parishes, in which a priest sits in a car with a sheet covering the window. For baptisms, a hybrid approach has been used with the first half of the ceremony held outside and the actual baptism taking place inside the church, one family at a time.
The parishes have used similar innovations to continue youth programs, and initiated a special “Joy” movement in which parishioners were invited to offer their “time, talent, and treasure in service to Jesus, then others, then themselves,” during the pandemic.
The Greater Framingham Community Church continues to hold services remotely because, Lloyd said, “this virus disproportionately affected communities of color and I will not subject my folk to putting them in harm’s way.”
While in-person services will not resume until “we have a high degree of vaccinated people,” Lloyd said, “we have been pushing the needle, thinking outside the box about how to creatively do ministry during COVID.”
In addition to livestreaming Sunday services, “I’ve done marriage counseling by Zoom, I’ve done small in-person weddings and baby dedications. I’ve done funerals by using Zoom from funeral homes,” Lloyd said. The church has also held Zoom retreats, mailed face masks to church members, and convened virtual community meetings on fighting racism, and is scheduled to hold community vaccine clinics.
Walsh said her Andover church has not resumed in-person services because “we don’t want to gather till we can all gather together safely.” But while the building might be closed, “the church is open. We immediately pivoted to virtual platforms and to finding creative ways to connect to the congregation. "
Services are streamed from the church using live and pre-recorded content. The church did perform some outdoor services last year and plans two others on Easter, together with one that will be streamed remotely. And children meet outside for Sunday school and a Wednesday after-school program.
“For me the power of the Easter story is not in lilies and trumpets,” said Everett, “but in just a few women” – followers of Jesus – “who went to a graveyard when all around them was death and discovered death didn’t have the final say. You are getting just a glimmer of that hope this year, that maybe this death that has been all around us will not have the final say.”
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.