Christians worldwide celebrate an Easter like no other

From drive-in services in Florida and Germany to hymns in the streets of New York, Easter Sunday celebrations emerged in all shapes and sizes. 

AP Photo/John Locher
Pastor Paul Marc Goulet prays to people in their cars at an Easter drive-in service at the International Church of Las Vegas due to the coronavirus outbreak on April 12, 2020, in Las Vegas.

Christians around the world celebrated Easter Sunday isolated in their homes by the coronavirus while pastors preached the faith’s joyous news of Christ's resurrection to empty pews. One Florida church drew a large turnout for a drive-in service in a parking lot.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the first major world leader to test positive for the virus, paid an emotional tribute Sunday to the country's National Health Service following his release from the hospital, saying its doctors and nurses had saved his life “no question.” He especially thanked two nurses who stood by his bedside for 48 hours “when things could have gone either way.”

The strangeness of this Easter was evident at the Vatican. St. Peter’s Square, where tens of thousands would normally gather to hear Pope Francis, was empty of crowds, ringed by police barricades. Pope Francis celebrated Easter Mass inside the largely vacant basilica.

In his address, the pope called for global solidarity to confront the “epochal challenge” of the pandemic. He urged political leaders to give hope and opportunity to the millions laid off work.

Worldwide, families who normally would attend church in their Easter best and later gather for festive meals instead were hunkered down at home. Police checkpoints in Europe and outside closed churches elsewhere left the faithful with few worship options other than watching services online or on TV.

Some U.S. pastors went ahead with in-person services despite state or local bans on large gatherings.

At the Happy Gospel Church in Bradenton, Florida, about 100 cars carrying 250 people gathered in the parking lot to hear Pastor Bill Bailey’s Easter sermon. Some sat in lawn chairs or on tailgates, but families stayed at least 6 feet apart; those in their cars occasionally honked to convey agreement with Bailey's remarks.

Relevant Church in South Carolina also held a drive-in service, but took the additional step of changing it to Saturday because of an expected storm. Gloved volunteers carefully distributed prepackaged communion packets to families who drove into the YMCA parking lot. While Pastor Matt McGarity preached from the New Testament, cars sporadically honked in agreement. “We felt tonight like we would any Easter morning: joyful, expectant, hopeful,” parishioner Kelly Hills said.

In Louisiana, a pastor who is facing misdemeanor charges for holding services despite a ban on gatherings, said people from every state and all but one continent attended his Easter service Sunday morning.

“My hope is not in a vaccine for a virus, but all my hope is in Jesus,” Rev. Tony Spell said during the service shown online at Life Tabernacle Church in the city of Central.

Worshipers could be heard clapping, singing and responding “amen” during the service, though it was not clear how many attended.

President Donald Trump had said he planned to watch an online service led by the Rev. Robert Jeffress of the Southern Baptist megachurch First Baptist Dallas, although the White House wouldn't confirm whether he did. The pastor, a staunch ally of the president, mentioned Mr. Trump in his remarks.

“We are going to get through this crisis with your continued strong leadership and the power of God,” Rev. Jeffress said.

In their own Easter message, Mr. Trump and his wife, Melania, paid tribute to the medical professionals, first responders, and other essential workers striving to combat the pandemic.

Back on March 24, at a Fox News virtual town hall, Mr. Trump had broached the possibility that the United States could emerge from widespread lockdowns by this weekend.

"I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” he said.

“Wouldn’t it be great to have all of the churches full?” Mr. Trump said in a subsequent interview. “You’ll have packed churches all over our country.”

Instead, most churches were empty, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, which is now the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who led a televised Mass, said he was pleased congregants could have a virtual celebration.

“We miss you though,” he added. “We’d rather you be here physically.”

Parishioners from churches across New York City sang “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” from their balconies and windows as part of an initiative organized online.

“My husband and I went out on the balcony and we belted it out as loud as we could,” said Kathy Keller, of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, who helped launch the ‘Easter2020’ singing event.

Ms. Keller said people from across the U.S. sent her messages telling her they had joined the event, including a woman in Denver, Colorado who sang while snow fell outside her window.

“Even if you didn’t hear everyone, God heard everyone,” Ms. Keller said.

At one of the biggest churches in South Korea, Seoul's Yoido Full Gospel Church, a small number of masked church followers attended the service broadcast online via the church’s website. They were seated noticeably apart from each other to abide by social distancing rules. Choir members also wore masks when they sang hymns.

In the central German city of Hildesheim, around 400 people participated in a drive-in Catholic Mass for Easter Sunday. People were allowed to take part if they stayed in their cars with the doors and windows closed, listening to the sermon over the radio.

In Europe, countries used roadblocks, fines, and other tactics to keep people from traveling over an Easter weekend with beautiful spring weather.

The Italian government said weekend police patrols resulted in more than 12,500 people being sanctioned and 150 facing criminal charges for allegedly violating lockdown measures.

On the hopeful side, officials said Italy recorded the lowest number of new coronavirus victims in three weeks, with 431 people dying in the past day to bring its total to over 19,800. It was the lowest day-to-day toll since March 19.

As hard-hit countries like Italy and Spain see reduced daily virus infections and deaths, economic pressures are mounting to loosen the tight restrictions on daily life.

Southern Europe and the U.S., whose death toll of over 22,000 is now the world’s highest, have been the recent focal points of the pandemic. But coronavirus hot spots have been shifting, with new concerns rising in Japan, Turkey, and Britain, where the death toll passed 10,000.

Uncertainties loomed about the months ahead, with a top European Union official suggesting people hold off on making any summer vacation plans.

Some European nations started tentative moves to ease their shutdowns. Spain, which on Sunday reported its lowest daily growth in infections in three weeks, will allow workers in some nonessential industries to return to factories and construction sites Monday.

More than 1.8 million infections have been reported and over 114,000 people have died worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. has the highest numbers, with over 555,000 confirmed cases. The figures likely understate the size and toll of the pandemic, due to limited testing, uneven counting of the dead and some governments’ desire to play down the extent of outbreaks.

In Britain, Mr. Johnson thanked those who treated him ahead of his release Sunday from St. Thomas’ Hospital and praised the entire National Health Service, which he called the “beating heart of this country.” His week in the hospital included three nights in the intensive care unit, where he received oxygen.

“I can’t thank them enough. I owe them my life,” said Mr. Johnson in his first public statement since he was moved from intensive care Thursday. His office said he will continue his recovery at Chequers, the prime minister’s country home.

In the U.S., about half the deaths are in the New York metropolitan area, but hospitalizations are slowing in the state and other indicators suggest that lockdowns and social distancing are “flattening the curve” of infections.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, said the economy in parts of the country could be allowed to reopen as early as next month.

While he said there’s no light switch that will be clicked to turn everything back, he told CNN's "State of the Union" that “rolling reentry” will be required based on the status of the pandemic in various parts of the country.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that 758 people died in the state Saturday, the sixth day in a row the toll topped 700. More than 9,300 people have died in New York.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Winfield reported from Rome and AP journalists around the world contributed.

Editor’s note: As a public service, the Monitor has removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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