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Christians energized by in-person Southern California gatherings for Easter

Cynthia Wagner gets emotional talking about her church’s plans for Easter Sunday this year.

“I’m going to cry,” said the operations manager for West Valley Christian Church in West Hills. Easter in 2020, Wagner said, was “a rocking-our-world kind of shock” for her tight-knit church members who, because of coronavirus-related lockdowns, were faced with the possibility of not being able to see each other, worship together and hug each other on one of the most important days for Christians.

But this week, with cases decreasing and COVID-19 vaccinations expanding, West Valley Christian Church and other congregations across the region are meeting in person, some inside and some outside, for Good Friday and Easter services.

‘New hope’

Unlike observances in past years, there’s more planning involved this time around, Wagner said, noting the church is providing hand sanitizer and face masks for those who forget to bring one and disinfecting the lobby, sanctuary and restrooms between services. But those extra tasks won’t dampen the energy and excitement of worshipping together again, she said.

“People are just happy to see each other again,” Wagner said.

In Orange County, Saddleback Church, the megachurch led by Pastor Rick Warren, which has been online throughout the pandemic, started meeting in person in late March, said Matthias Walther, the church’s director of marketing.

On Thursday night, Saddleback held an outdoor Easter service under an open tent on its Lake Forest campus. Walther said those who attended could remain in their cars during the service or sit under the tent — masked and physically-distanced — with others.

“Our goal and challenge now is to accommodate everyone without having some people feel oppressed or limited, but make sure everyone feels safe,” he said.

There’s been a lot of excitement shared by people who “drive up the hill” and realize they are going to be physically together as a church again, he added.

“Easter is one of the biggest events (in church) next to Christmas,” he said. “We have new hope in the form of Jesus’s resurrection. This step back into normalcy brings new hope and it couldn’t come at a better time.”

Though Saddleback Church’s 14 Orange County campuses were closed to visitors, “the church itself was never closed,” Walther said. It held 734 grocery distribution events serving more than 850,000 people, distributed more than 10.5 million pounds of food, engaged nearly 36,000 volunteers, obtained 23,159 “decisions for Jesus” and baptized 1,405 people, he said.

“So, we don’t consider this a reopening, but a regathering,” Walther said.



Some returns slower

Purpose Church in Pomona, which typically holds Easter Sunday services at Fairplex with more than 10,000 attending, had to move its observance online last year, like others. This year, though the church won’t return to its pre-pandemic tradition at Fairplex, it will gather in person for outdoor services on its 14-acre campus.

“Having in-person services is really comforting for a lot of people,” said Tina Tong, the church’s worship manager. “For us to be able to come back to our church, especially for Easter, is meaningful. It’s all about new life and new beginnings and just what we all need after a year of lockdowns and limitations. It’s a resurrection of our society as well with what we hope is the tail end of the pandemic.”

The church continued to serve its members even through lockdowns, Tong said.

“We held funerals so people could grieve properly,” she said. “We had (online) support groups for mental health and addiction so people had that weekly accountability.”

There are some congregations that are still not quite ready to meet in person. At the Redlands First United Methodist Church, in-person worship won’t happen until a week after Easter and Pastor J.T. Greenleaf said there’s a good reason for that decision.

“Our church hasn’t had a stress test for our teams that are working hard to keep safety protocols in place,” he said, referring to volunteers who are helping sanitize the church between services and making sure everyone is practicing safety measures like physical distancing.

“We didn’t want to do that at Easter when we typically have 600 to 700 people attending,” he added. “We didn’t want to get ahead of ourselves.”

Greenleaf said he is comfortable taking a measured approach and his church’s board and congregants agree.

“We’re still in a pandemic. People are still getting infected and dying. It may be into the month of May or even June before we fulfill the possibility that the orange tier will give us,” he said, referring to the state’s reopening framework.

Balancing act

Many congregations are easing into what once were normal practices.

St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach began to meet in person in mid-March and the church is focused on “finding ways to safely allow people to come back to a space that has held a lot of meaning for them,” said Pastor Mark Davis.

As part of this effort, they’ve erected an interactive exhibit that has remained open through this week called “The Holy Week Easter Walk.” The self-guided tour takes participants through nine stations that relay the meaning of Easter to different age groups. Davis said one station for children has painted stones, representing the stones of Christ’s tomb.

“They can write a message on some stones, some they can take home and others they can build an altar with,” he said.

Another station has the outline of a cross where people plant seeds and and watch the living cross grow. Davis himself created one of the stations with a poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident.

The church will have a combination of virtual and in-person services. On Easter Sunday, there will be no choir, but singers behind plexiglass. Even as they are easing into normalcy, Davis said, he can see the deep meaning it has for congregants.

“We take for granted sometimes how much meaning is invested in this faith,” he said. “A church is a place where a parent’s funeral was held or a place where someone was married. They’ve created friendships, relationships here. What we’ve come to learn is that a building does hold meaning although we’d like to think otherwise.”

Davis is trying to temper enthusiasm over the return to church buildings with caution because of the potential for another COVID-19 surge.

“It isn’t easy to come out of a cocoon, just as it wasn’t easy to climb into it in the first place,” he said. “I guess we’re trying to find that precise point between courage and caution.”

Source: Orange County Register

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