Holy Week is sacred among Christians as they recall the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion and celebrate his resurrection—preachers on Easter Sunday sermonize how his coming back to life represents light following darkness.
That message of hope is an important one for parishioners to keep in mind, said Rev. Michael Fincher at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, especially since worshipers cannot congregate this Easter Sunday due to stay-at-home orders meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“The whole message Jesus had at the end of his life was that this is not the end of the story,” Fincher said, drawing a biblical comparison to the coronavirus pandemic. “You cannot have Easter without Good Friday. Right now it may seem like we are in the Good Friday place, in the darkness, but there is something more, there is resurrection… We will come through this.”
Until then, Fincher and other local ministers are finding innovative ways to tend their flocks, leveraging technology to provide digital Sunday services for the past month and Holy Week liturgies even though churches are closed until further notice.
At the Greek Orthodox Church of Long Beach, Holy Week is traditionally the busiest time of year, according to Rev. Christos Kanakis, but pews that normally provide solace sit empty as he preaches to a vacant sanctuary. There’s no one to physically take sacrament, kiss icons or sing hymns in harmony.
“When I turn around and see the empty church, I try to focus on the camera,” Kanakis said. “I try to think of everyone—that’s what helps the loneliness—I know everyone is with me.”
Besides digital sermons, the Greek Orthodox Church is maintaining its tradition of lighting luminaries commemorating loved ones for Holy Week, showing the lit paper bags surrounding the church on YouTube. Kanakis is also saying prayers and burning candles on behalf of anyone who asks.
Orthodox churches are beginning Holy Week and will observe Easter on April 19; most other local churches are wrapping up Holy Week with Easter on April 12.
Having never used technology to livestream his Episcopal sermons, Fincher said he’s had to adapt quickly. He emphasized that digital services cannot replace the more experiential and visceral elements of worship, or hugs among congregants, but he believes technology can help churches maintain hope and a sense of community.
“It was a scramble, but we’ve settled in, and Sunday services are on Facebook Live,” the preacher said, noting that he’s doing short prayer readings daily, too, reaching more people now than ever before.
An average Sunday service was physically attended by roughly 100 people, and the number watching online is more than double that, Fincher noted, with family and friends viewing together across the United States.
“People, particularly at a time of isolation and uncertainty, are looking for something to hold onto,” he said. “People are looking for some sign of hope, and throughout our 2,000-year history the church has been the place that people turn to for that.”
But even if more people are tuning in, there are no donation trays circulating during digital services and churches are pinching pennies to make up for lost revenue from weddings, baptisms, funerals and private events.
“The offerings have been down,” Fincher said, noting that the church’s food bank is struggling to bring in donations and volunteers. The Greek Orthodox Church, too, is sending out virtual collection trays while at the same time trying to help support parishioners who may be in need.
But despite the challenges, Pastor Gregory Sanders from Rock Christian Fellowship is assuring believers that churches are “durable and formidable” and now is the time to strengthen the faith.
“The church is not a building or a monument, it is fluid,” he said. “It’s rooted in the resilience of the people. And so the church, I always say, is a living organism.”
Sanders said closing doors to keep people safe was the right thing to do but he’s in mourning over not being able to hug and high-five the members of his congregation. Still, he said he thanks God that this crisis has happened at a time when advanced technology allows people to stay connected.
“Just because we cannot gather doesn’t mean we have to be separated,” said Sanders, who also serves as president of the Long Beach Ministers Alliance. “We are going to be all right as humanity. We are going to be fine. Keep loving on each other, keep encouraging each other and keep connecting with each other.”
Kanakis emphasized the importance of maintaining faith, connecting with one another and using this time as an opportunity to practice prayer at home.
“Just like we are bringing work home, we are bringing church home and that’s important to do anyways,” he said. “So there’s this light in this situation of working on our prayer life at home… We are in a desert but we are not deserted. Even in the desert we can find Christ and find faith and find hope.”