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Churches Get Creative For Easter Week Worship As Coronavirus Halts Normal Services

A shot of inside a church with people in white robes singing
Kerry Sheridan/WUSF
The choir sings at a pre-recorded Palm Sunday service at the Church of the Redeemer in Sarasota, FL

More than 1,000 people tuned in online to see the full choir sing at Palm Sunday services at the Church of the Redeemer in Sarasota. But the church itself was closed, and no one was inside.

The service that broadcasted online at 8:50 am was actually pre-recorded more than two weeks ago, before Florida’s governor issued a statewide stay-at-home order, but around the time coronavirus cases in New York began to surge.

“We looked at it and said, ‘It's coming to a town near you. And if we want to have Easter that even feels like our normal Easter we need to pre-record it,’” said Father Charleston Wilson, who leads the downtown Sarasota parish of about 2,500 members.

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Less than a month into the global pandemic, online worship is already commonplace as large gatherings are canceled due to coronavirus. And churches around the country are getting creative for Easter week, the holiest time of the year for Christians as they mark the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Last week, ahead of Palm Sunday, Wilson organized a drive-through event at which he handed out boxes with palms, special prayers, and rocks for children to paint at Easter.

A priest in a white robe talks at a lectern
Credit Kerry Sheridan / WUSF
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WUSF
Fr. Charleston Wilson gives Palm Sunday Mass in an online format

“We said, ‘Come through, drive though, for ‘Holy Week in a Box.’ We’ll hand it to you. Don’t get out of your car,” Wilson said.

Easter’s service was staged and pre-recorded much like Palm Sunday’s, and will air Sunday morning.

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Some churches are integrating their followers with their online sermons.

Tampa’s Hyde Park Methodist Church debuted its interactive livestreaming platform over the weekend.

Man named Dave Timmons in blue shirt with gray hair gives call to worship outside
Credit Kerry Sheridan / WUSF
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WUSF
The faithful participate by recording their own calls to worship at home

“We have been working hard on this service and we hope that you will find it to be one of the most unique and powerful Easters we have ever offered,” said pastor Debbie Casanzio.

It included an outdoor video appearance from parishioner Dave Timmons, who delivered the call to worship on a sunny day with a leafy tree in the background.

“We joyfully celebrate today as Christians have celebrated through the ages, yet we confess that it can be hard to find joy in these difficult days,” Timmons said.

Some churches are offering opportunities for confession by drive through at certain times. Others are organizing relief funds for those in need, and going old-school, by calling on the phone to check on parishioners one by one.

For years, long before the coronavirus pandemic, churches across the country had recorded worship services and aired for people who could not make it to church in person. It was often called “Mass For Shut-Ins.”

a red haired woman talks about Easter services online
Credit Kerry Sheridan / WUSF
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WUSF
Pastor Debbie Casanzio of Tampa's Hyde Park United Methodist Church

Now that social distancing is required to stem the spread of coronavirus, online viewership is way up.

Wilson, from Church of the Redeemer, said a Sunday service at his church would typically draw about 1,000 for an in-person worship. Online, the audience now sometimes nears 1,200. And he said he's been even more surprised by the audience for religious education courses he’s posted online.

“If I teach a class on a Wednesday night down at the church, I might have 30 or 40 people. That would be a very successful Wednesday night class. Now, 600 people are watching things that I'm offering live on Wednesday evenings,” Wilson said.

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