The COVID-19 pandemic forced many churches to scale back their worship experiences last year on the most important Sunday in Christianity.

The state was still in the early stages of combating the coronavirus, which had been in South Carolina for roughly a month as Christians prepared for Resurrection Sunday. Many churches pivoted to virtual Easter services instead of the traditional, packed-out sanctuaries and conducted ministry largely online. Since March 2020, many parishioners have been watching sermons on screens and pastors have been preaching to empty pews.

“It has been a strain,” said the Rev. Charlie Murray, pastor of First Baptist Church of James Island.

The Rev. Charlie Murray preaches during an evening revival hosted by First Baptist Church of James Island as they prepare for Easter on  Thursday, April 1, 2021. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Grace Beahm Alford

But churches that couldn’t physically worship together last Easter are looking forward to in-person services that somewhat mirror the excitement and fellowship Christians are accustomed to on Easter Sunday. Vaccinations have played a large role in making churches feel comfortable coming together.

Some houses of worship also intend to use Easter on April 4 as an opportunity to shed light on other important issues raised during the pandemic, such as racial division.

Not all congregations will worship in person, an indication of the virus’ remaining presence. But those planning to gather aim to create safe environments for people to sing, pray and hear sermons.

In-person services and important issues

The James Island faith group will join First Baptist Church in downtown Charleston for an outdoor worship service at an athletic field. The experience, expected to draw roughly 700 attendees to the First Baptist High School stadium, will feature live music, sung by a small praise team, and a sermon.

Murray’s congregation will also begin transitioning back into physical worship in its church building April 11. Murray, who estimated about 85 percent of eligible members have been vaccinated, is looking forward to services with a limited attendance of 25 people inside a sanctuary that can seat 1,300.  

“Most churches are now making preparations to phase back into in-person worship,” Murray said.

The Rev. Marshall Blalock, pastor of First Baptist in Charleston, streamed last year’s Easter sunrise service from The Battery. Though it provided an opportunity for the church to be creative in engaging worshippers, Blalock said he will be happy to see people who haven’t been to a physical church service since last year.

In 2020, the Rev. Marshall Blalock and his son Andrew Blalock of First Baptist Church streamed live on Facebook during their traditional Easter sunrise service at The Battery in Charleston on April 12, 2020. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

By Andrew Whitaker

“We’re expecting to see many people on Easter back in worship for the first time since last March,” Blalock said. “To be able to do it with First Baptist (of James Island) is even more exciting.”

The two churches also plan to highlight another issue that the nation continues to grapple with: racial tension.

The downtown Baptist group is a predominately White church that’s part of the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination increasingly grappling with its racist history.

Blalock hopes the joint service with First Baptist of James Island, a historically Black congregation, promotes a message of unity.

“There are plenty of things out there that divide us,” Blalock said. “It’s tragic how that happens. When we have a shared faith, that shared faith, if it’s authentic, will overcome every barrier. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Murray initially reached out to Blalock inquiring about the availability of the First Baptist school campus, affiliated with the downtown Charleston congregation. Blalock told Murray the Southern Baptist group planned to use the field for Easter but invited Murray to do a collaborative service.

“I saw no need to continue to look (for an outdoor facility),” Murray said. “That was our opportunity that God was making for us. We are all God’s children and we should be able to worship together. I think with all that’s going on in the world, we as Christians, need to be reminded of how heaven is going to look.”

Other congregations will look to have safe, indoor services.

The steeple of First Baptist Church of James Island rises above worshipers, including Benjamin Johnson as he sings with the praise team, during an evening revival held in a field beside the church on Thursday, April 1, 2021. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Grace Beahm Alford

Seacoast Church’s 12 physical campuses will be open for services this Easter with safety precautions in place. Worshippers at all campuses will be spaced out and attendees are also asked to wear masks, said Jack Hoey, the church’s creative director. All campuses are adding one extra service, and those who plan to attend are asked to register in advance, Hoey said.

Additionally, Seacoast’s Mount Pleasant campus will have outdoor seating.

“We’re very excited to welcome people back,” Hoey said.

Vaccines provide a level of comfort

Vaccines have become more widely available in South Carolina, prompting religious organizations to feel more comfortable about opening their doors.

No in-person Catholic Masses took place last Easter in the state, but the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston, which covers the entire state, resumed in-person worship with safety protocols shortly after Resurrection Sunday. 

The continued decrease in positive COVID-19 cases has given the religious organization reason to empower priests to use discretion on whether to host in-person Mass, said Maria Aselage, spokeswoman for the diocese.

“Each pastor will make a decision on what his parish’s Easter Sunday Masses will look like with, of course, the regulations by DHEC as a focus point,” Aselage said.

Some Episcopal churches in the state will offer indoor worship, said Molly Hamilton, spokeswoman for the Diocese of South Carolina. Others plan to return to their facilities over the next month.

“Many parishioners have expressed that having gotten the vaccine and knowing others have too, has given them a level of comfort in returning to church,” Hamilton said.

Some staying home

Not all churches will be in person this Sunday as congregations continue to navigate the virus and determine what’s they feel is best for their churches.

Holy Trinity AME Church had originally hoped to have a drive-in service on Easter Sunday. But when the Mount Pleasant church held a drive-in worship experience on Palm Sunday that saw people mingling too closely, the Rev. Arthur Holmes decided to pivot to a Zoom service for Resurrection Sunday.

“It was just human nature for people to gravitate when they saw one another,” said Holmes, the church’s pastor. “I’m a little saddened. I do want us to come together and have that fellowship. But then I had to think what was in the best interest for my congregation for the long haul.”

Still, Holmes feels the biblical message of the cross and the empty tomb will resonate. The Easter story is important because it shows how God reconnected with human beings through Jesus, Holmes said. During the pandemic, God still finds a way to draw people, he said.

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