When Bishop Michael Duca steps to the pulpit to deliver his Easter Sunday homily, he will gaze into a starkly empty St. Joseph Cathedral. For Baton Rouge Christians, its a Holy Week unlike any other.
With one notable exception, churches have called off all gatherings that normally fill the busiest week of their year. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, most services, if they are held, will be online.
Just like the inability to visit loved ones or go to work, the inability to attend church services is part of a new normal, Duca said. He empathizes with those for whom virtual church doesnt feel like the real thing.
Every part of this is disruptive, and adding to that is one of the places we go most often for solace is not just to pray but to our faith communities because were supported by one another, Duca said. In particular in the Catholic church, were supported by that experience of the sacraments hearing the word of God preached but also the sacraments, receiving communion with our brothers and sisters and gaining strength from that. Its a profound change in their life.
The Rev. Brady Whitton, pastor of First United Methodist Church, objects to social media messages that suggest that the loss of community is no big deal.
"Ive seen people writing things like, The church is not a building, and thats true, Whitton said. Every day is Easter for Christians. Ive heard people say that, and thats also very, very true & but what I dont like about posts like that is it does diminish the fact that getting together and being able to worship with each other is a very special thing. I think its especially meaningful on Easter.
Yet, just as the first Easter Sunday was a joyous surprise for Jesus followers, Baton Rouge area clergy and laity say they see unexpected blessings in this years loss of treasured traditions. Some churches have been forced to embrace 21st century ways of reaching people. Laypeople have created Easter week celebrations they never would have considered absent the virus restrictions.
I think this is going to cause a spiritual renewal, said the Rev. Robin McCullough-Bade, director of the Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge. The whole Lenten season is about coming back to God, on pushing back on the things that distract us from God. So, its a true coming home.
Gwen Henry, a mother of three children, is taking that approach literally. Her family intends to view their churchs online services, as they have on recent Sundays, but she's asked other families on her street to come out to the end of their driveways but no closer at sunrise Sunday for a brief service. A retired pastor who lives on the street agreed to say a few words for those assembled.
The children will miss dressing up for church and holding an Easter egg hunt, but those aren't important on Easter because of what the day means, Henry said.
I just dont want it to be a regular day, she said. It would be missing out on an opportunity to really share that experience with people we are connected with, even though we cant go to church or gather at a meal afterward. I didnt want them to miss out on that opportunity, and I didnt want our neighbors to miss out on it, too.
Elsewhere in the city, residents living near the Webb Park Golf Course have created two Stations of the Cross for the faithful to access individually on Good Friday. McCullough-Bade held small Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday services for a handful of residents on her Magnolia Wood subdivision street.
Recalling Easter vigil services she once attended at St. James Episcopal Church, Kenilworth resident Debbie Stiltner posted a request on the Nextdoor website for people to set out luminaries Saturday night. Shes received feedback that suggests the idea is catching on, and at least one other Nextdoor neighborhood site has picked up the theme.
When coronavirus became a local concern several weeks ago, Nikki Josey Felger picked up an idea from a Georgia friend and created a Facebook page, Louisiana Faith Not Fear Crosses, suggesting Christians put up crosses outside their homes. Many responded, and some crosses have been adorned with palms or colored fabric in keeping with the season.
No matter what the news says, we have to stand on our faith, Felger said. Thats what the cross represents, and it just so happens that here we are in the Easter season, so its a perfect time to represent both things.
Not that there is a shortage of online opportunities for the Christians to worship and reflect. Replacing in-person services with virtual ones has been a necessity, said the Rev. Clee Lowe, pastor of Greater Mount Carmel Baptist Church. Both Lowe and his wife, Louise, have contracted the coronavirus, and Louise is still hospitalized though out of danger, Lowe said. He disagrees with the decision of Life Tabernacle Church in Central to continue to hold services in violation of Gov. John Bel Edwards order to restrict such gatherings.
When Jesus tells us do not tempt God, we know that God is in control, Lowe said. We have nothing to prove to the world by not coming to church in a time like this when the crisis is so great regarding our health.
For smaller churches, such as Lutheran Church of our Savior, this is a first, and its members particularly those who live alone have appreciated it, said the Rev. Nancy Andrews.
Many Catholic churches Masses and other services will be live-streamed, said Deacon Dan Borne, a spokesman for the Diocese of Baton Rouge. For megachurches like Bethany Church, this week just expands on worship services and studies oriented toward a variety of age categories. The Rev. Wayne Brown, Bethanys executive pastor, said it is good that other churches are riding the digital wave.
I think what was beneficial about this whole situation was the focus on the family, the opportunity for families to get back together, Brown said. I heard someone say this weekend, a lot of times people ask the adults, What was the hard part about COVID-19? A lot of them said, We couldnt go here. We couldnt do that. But if you ask the children & theyre going to remember the family time they got to spend with their family and the opportunity to be closer. Moms and dads are home. Theyre with their kids, and those kids are enjoying that time with them.
Although she remains busy, Andrews said the coronavirus restrictions have given her more time for devotions and personal reflections, something she hopes other adult Christians share. McCullough-Bade has used the federation website to encourage believers to use their frequent, 20-second hand-washing moments to pray instead of hum "Happy Birthday" to themselves.
"Even though were not celebrating Easter (in person), the true feast is alive in us, Duca said. Maybe we dont have all of the normal celebrations that we oftentimes equate with Easter, but we have the power of the resurrection there to celebrate and draw strength from."
Believers should not be discouraged or even surprised that God would allow disease to disrupt this holiest of holidays, several clergy remarked. Lowe said God may be using this to send a message.
The writing is on the wall that there is a lack of love that should be permeating in our society, a lack of love for our fellow man," Lowe said. "We have an opportunity as faith-based people to begin to lead our nation in the right way that God would have us be."
Andrews said Christians should seek to mirror the courage and resolve that Jesus showed heading toward his crucifixion. Even in the best of times, Holy Week explores dark themes as well as the resurrection, and the faithful should face that squarely, Whitton said.
If there is anything for me that coronavirus has reminded us of, its that sickness is a part of life, death is a part of life, disruption is a part of life, at least life the way it is now, Whitton said. It can be very overwhelming. It can be very depressing. It can create anxiety. It can create fear. I find it fascinating that all of this is happening during Holy Week, but also with the promise and the reminder that darkness and death do not have the final word.