More than 3,000 faithful typically flock to Easter Lutheran Church during the bustling week leading up to Easter. This year, however, its parking lots in Eagan are empty. The life-size crucifix used on Good Friday’s “Cross Walk” is in storage. And the white stoles for the children’s First Communion ritual remain neatly folded inside.
Across Minnesota — and the world — church doors for the first time are locked on Easter Sunday, spotlighting the dramatic impact of the novel coronavirus on houses of faith, their pastors and their congregations. Even Pope Francis will livestream inside an empty St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
The impact of COVID-19 reaches far beyond virtual worship services, religious leaders said. It is upending countless family traditions and forcing both creativity and a new strain on church leaders who say the virus will change the church forever.
Sunday’s online worship at Easter Lutheran, for example, contains footage of its eerily vacant church, symbolizing the empty tomb of Jesus. But it doesn’t conclude with a video of resurrected packed pews, said Pastor Brandon Newton “because we didn’t want to gloss over reality.”
“We’re in the middle of pandemic,” said Newton, “and we’re not certain when we’ll gather again.”
Easter Lutheran Church is among hundreds of churches streaming services this weekend on televisions and computers in Minnesota living rooms, offering uplifting music and sermons to mark the day that Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.
The faithful, for the first time, are relaxing in their living rooms and dens — some still wearing pajamas — instead of well-dressed inside church with family and friends.
A few faith leaders have experimented with ways to offer more but still within social distancing rules required by COVID-19.
St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop Bernard Hebda and Bishop Andrew Cozzens will offer blessings to passing vehicles Sunday afternoon as they stand outside the Cathedral of St. Paul.
St. Joseph Catholic Church in Waconia and Riverview United Methodist Church in Burnsville are among those holding drive-in Easter services in their parking lots. People must remain in their cars, with radios tuned to the worship frequency. But no communion. No bathroom use.
St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Minneapolis continued its tradition of a Good Friday procession, which typically draws about 500 people, by limiting to just 10 participants and broadcasting live.
It’s always a huge effort to orchestrate Easter week rituals, said faith leaders. But it’s particularly challenging to coordinate the many moving parts — the music, children’s events, sermons, readings — with staff inside homes separated by miles.
Pastors feel it in countless ways, and one is very personal, namely the sudden focus on how they appear on video.
“I never wanted to be a televangelist,” said Newton, who now records himself from the office he shares with his daughter’s playroom.
“I have anxiety about it. When people press ‘play,’ they have certain expectations.”
While social distancing guidelines have thrust faith leaders into the digital world, it has also meant stepping back in time. At the Cathedral of St. Paul, Minnesota’s largest Catholic church, the Rev. John Ubel says he’s found himself reaching out to vulnerable members in old-fashioned ways, particularly those who may not be computer savvy.
“This has forced me to find new ways to connect,” said Ubel. “I want to make phone calls to people I think are lonely. It’s amazing what a simple handwritten note can do to reach out to people.”
Social distancing has also meant no in-person Sunday offerings, leaving many churches worried about their financial future, especially during this season when so many give.
Mixed blessing for faithful
Patricia and Edward Nix were among hundreds of people who drove to the Cathedral of St. Paul last Sunday for a new Palm Sunday ritual. Ubel and two other priests stood next to the street at several tables topped with zip-locked bags containing palms, church bulletins and prayer books.
For two and half hours, a steady stream of cars pulled up. One priest first handed out the palms. Another read blessings. A third handed out bulletins and pitched in other ways.
The Nixes, clutching their palm fronds, said they appreciated the effort. They planned to hold the palms while watching Mass online at home that morning.
But their Cottage Grove home, however comfortable, was not the same as their cathedral filled with live music and shared song, said Patricia Nix. Plus her sons were going to serve as altar boys at the Easter Mass, another disappointment.
“It’s nice that we can still see the images inside the church,” said Nix, referring to the streaming services. “But we miss the community, saying hi to people and talking. And we miss the priest.”
Likewise, Randy Dufault, a volunteer at Easter Lutheran Church services for years, said he will miss the family tradition of attending the church’s sunrise service — with the sounds of chirping birds — and the camaraderie of helping at church services.
“There’s a big part of my life missing,” said Dufault, a software consultant from Eagan who works the church sound system at every service. “In my position, I have a lot of involvement with the musicians. I miss that. And more.”
Some churches are leaning into the reality that people are worshiping on their own. St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in St. Paul, for example, has been posting videos and e-mails encouraging people to make their own “sacred spaces” at home.
That includes how to make a small altar, with a tablecloth, candle, and objects for prayer and meditation. The church website advised on cloth color and appropriate objects to be used this Easter week.
“We want to remind people that the church isn’t just a building, that faith is as relevant at home as it is in an elegant cathedral,” said St. John’s Pastor Jered Weber-Johnson.
Faith leaders such as Weber-Johnson say the coronavirus has transformed church practices more dramatically than any time in memory. The innovation, the technology and the fresh emphasis on personal outreach are likely to remain long after the virus ebbs.
And so on this most unusual of Easter Sundays, some Christians will find comfort celebrating with others in a church parking lot. Others will quietly light candles in their homes as a symbol of resurrection. Most will sit in front of their TVs and devices, watching their pastors or priests and wishing they could be with them.
“I think the coronavirus will change the church irrevocably, Weber-Johnson. “It’s causing the church to grow in so many ways.”