Seeking Easter community, during COVID-19
Easter in Montclair
Churches and resources mentioned in this story are listed at the end; however, there are many more churches in Montclair and surrounding areas.
By GWEN OREL
Easter, the holiest day on the Christian calendar, will look a little different this year.
Instead of dressing up to go to church, people are dressing up to appear in a small box on Zoom.
During the social distancing caused by coronavirus, church-going, Easter egg hunts, and some of the solemn activities during Holy Week have been re-imagined.
But that’s OK, say Montclair clergy and parishioners.
For the first 300 years of Christianity, there were no buildings, no churches, says the Rev. Benny Prado, of St. Teresa of Calcutta Parish.
“People shared stories. It was a spiritual communion. For us, this is part of our roots, not necessarily people coming to the church but connecting spiritually, at home,” he said.
GREEN BRANCHES SUNDAY?
Palm Sunday, the day that commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, begins Holy Week. But this year, the greenery may not be palms. The Rev. Campbell B. Singleton, of Union Baptist Church, said his congregation had to create their palms.
“Everybody did something different. Some people had colored green paper,” he said.
He and his family, isolating in New York City, blessed the bread for communion on Zoom. “It took three or four minutes. Normally it takes half an hour, as the Deacons come and take the trays to different people, some upstairs, some downstairs,” he added.
Traditionally, the palms are burned on Shrove Tuesday, and the ashes saved to use on Ash Wednesday the following year.
“I’ve asked people at home to cut a branch, and keep it,” Prado said. He was in an actual, empty Immaculate Conception church building on 30 North Fullerton Ave. this past Sunday, livestreaming the service. He blessed the branches he could not see, and told his parishioners that whenever they met again, to bring the branches they had cut.
Of course, Palm Sunday also has a solemn side to it, said Peter Wert, a parishioner and choir member at First Congregational Church. At FCC there is a “litany about pulling the darkness that is the rest of Holy Week before Easter.”
Formerly at FCC, the litany was done with readers spaced around the congregation, so that they were a part of the crowd. As a choir member he would literally run through the sanctuary handing out palms, timed to the music.“To do it on Zoom, in the ‘Brady Bunch’ square boxes grid, gave it a whole different meaning. We were all separated, but yet there we were all together on the screen,” he said.
FCC’s Rev. Ann Ralosky sent an email out a week before the holiday, asking parishioners to take a picture of themselves with a palm if they had one or just a green plant.
The pictures were made into a montage by FCC videographer and choir member Elizabeth Honer, which played at the start of the Zoom service, over a Hosanna sung by Honer and her wife.
The dark elements of Palm Sunday were deliberately omitted this year by the Rev. Melissa Hall, of St. James Episcopal Church. Ordinarily, her church reads the Passion, the story of Christ’s suffering. “We will do it on Good Friday,” she said. “There is so much death around us. My admonition to the congregation was to stay focused on the joy of that moment, of Jesus entering Jerusalem, and people thinking He was the messiah.”
READ: PASSOVER: A SOCIALLY DISTANCED SEDER
READ: COVID-19: MONTCLAIR HOUSES OF WORSHIP ADJUST TO SOCIAL DISTANCING, CLOSURE
The church has palms, which are sitting in a box inside the tower. “We realized if we took the palms out people would want to come and take them, and that is not a safe thing to do right now. We are trying to hold with the intention of what Holy Week teaches us. When this started we thought we’d have Palm Sunday on the front lawn for fresh air. That went out the window. Then I thought I’d make two cardboard donkeys and glue them to the car and drive around. That went away,” Hall said. Instead she asked people to take branches from their own bushes at home. “People made bouquets and hung them on their doors.”
The Rev. John Mennell, of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, also had parishioners hang greens on their door. “Palms represent paving the way for Jesus into Jerusalem 2,000 years ago,” he said. “The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t say palms, it simply says branches. The branches pave the way for Jesus into our homes, our lives, our hearts. The church is not closed. It’s just where it should be, where it always has been, out in the world. Instead of us shouting ‘Allelujia’ in church, we’re shouting in our homes.”
Along with its spiritual meaning, Easter is also known for its fun, spring elements: the Easter bunny, Easter baskets, chocolate bunnies, Easter eggs.
Town Easter egg hunts are all canceled. But some families will continue to celebrate at home.
“I’ve been happy that Sweet Home Montclair is delivering chocolates, and so is Holsten’s,” said Colleen Daly Martinez, who runs the Facebook group Share Montclair. “The two of them have saved our Easter. I need something to look forward to.”
She will be dyeing white eggs at home with old-fashioned food coloring. She has jellybeans and peeps ready, but no fake grass; she may have to shred construction paper.
Since she cannot have an Easter egg hunt, she thinks her family will revisit a tradition they used to do long ago, when her daughter, now 14, attended Hillside elementary school. It was an engineering and design project, in which everyone would wrap up an egg to protect it, and throw the egg out the window, to see whose egg did not break.
“We’re trying to find bits of happiness,” she said.
Carolyn Buck also intends to have a virtual Easter egg hunt, Saturday morning. Central
Presbyterian Church, she said, sent out a PDF with palms drawing for children to color in.
Hall said she would love to have an Easter egg hunt. “I wanted to leave chocolate bunnies on the lawn, but I can’t do that. I’m leaving it to families to figure out a way,” she said.
Supritha Gowda usually has an Easter egg hunt outside with her son. This year, her 5-year-old will look for Kinder Joy eggs inside the house. She purchased those a long time ago at Costco, and did not have time to purchase chocolates this year.
Her son will also draw colored eggs. At first he did not understand about the virus pandemic, but now he knows it is dangerous to get close to other kids. “He’s OK with doing the Easter egg hunt inside,” she said.
St. Teresa of Calcutta parishioner Kamala Murthy has made a coconut cake, and may do some egg dying, but not much more.
“My father is in the hospital with COVID-19,” she said. “He’s in critical condition. We’re grateful to have a place to share, grateful for a community to tap into for prayers and support.”
GATHERING IN HIS NAME
“People have been responding to and following us on Facebook,” Prado said. “I know there will be a day we will get together again. For now, this is the way we are going to celebrate. This is truly an opportunity for all of us to celebrate who we are. In the words of Pope John Paul II, ‘Do not abandon yourself to despair.’ We are going to celebrate in the middle of this pandemic, that the Lord reminded us He removed the stone from that tomb to bring His son to life.”
Murthy said she is grateful to be able to hear the readings, and Prado’s homily.
Celebrating on Zoom also welcomes people who might not otherwise be able to attend, said Singleton. “My friends and family in Florida are normally not there.” He estimates at least 20 more people than usual have been able to attend. Union Baptist services are now no longer than an hour, to account for limited attention span to watching a screen.
He misses hearing other people sing: music is a capella to avoid feedback and delay, he said. But “all of this is about fellowship,” he said. “God created Eve because it isn’t good to be alone. Community is what mirrors bad behavior, holds you accountable, inspires you to do some things you wouldn't be able to do without the group.” For some senior citizens, the hours at church allow them to see other people, and “give them a little jump start, injects them with new life.”
St. Luke’s too has seen a “diaspora,” of former parishioners now living in California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Illinois, Utah and Georgia, said Mennell. “This is giving us the opportunity to spread this message of hope even wider. And don’t we need to spread a message of hope right now in the midst of everything going on?”
Most of the time, the congregation’s mics are muted during a Zoom service, but when they get to “the peace,” when the congregation says “The peace of Christ be with you,” they open up all the microphone. “Last week we had 160 people at the 10 a.m. service,” Mennell said. And after the service, there was a “virtual coffee hour” as people stayed to chat. “When you go to the ‘Brady Bunch’ view where you can see people, it is so uplifting to see one another,” he added.
Hall’s congregation will join the church’s Bishop in Newark, who is doing a live feed from the Episcopal Church, for the diocese.
All during Holy Week at noon, St. James’ musical director goes up into the bell tower, and plays by hand a hymn and a secular song. One day he played Cole Porter’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
Hall is sending lessons to children, and making phone calls, along with the Rev. Audrey Hasselbrook, to congregants.
“We have to get down to the bare wood, to wrap our arms around the cross and remember what we’re supposed to do. Easter is not parading around with palms, or me walking around with finery. It’s praying, caring, hoping for someone when you don’t even know who they are.”
Not being able to physically be with the congregation and physically give communion is heartbreaking, he said, but “we’re having a spiritual communion. The church is the body of Christ, all the members. It’s not the building. Now we are celebrating a home. He said ‘Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, I’m in the midst.’”
EASTER IN MONTCLAIR
St. Teresa of Calcutta parish
Union Baptist Church
First Congregational Church
St. James Episcopal Church
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
Sweet Home Montclair
Holsten’s Brookdale Confectionary