BEMIDJI -- It will be an Easter like no other on Sunday as Christians worship on their computers, tablets and smartphones. Pastors who are accustomed to overflowing sanctuaries will deliver their resurrection messages to video cameras as coronavirus restrictions keep worshipers in their homes.
Those sermons certainly will celebrate this most holy day, but they also will address the pandemic and its impact on society.
“I’m going to talk a little bit about anxiety over COVID-19,” said Fr. Chuck Huck, pastor at St. Philip’s Catholic Church in Bemidji. “I’m going to talk about family troubles and how when we turn our hearts toward God in prayer … God is offering us new life with our families and close intimate relationships. That worry about work, or money, how God is there for us and supports us through those difficult times that we’re encountering right now.”
Huck will deliver that message during a livestream Mass at 10 a.m. Sunday. Area churches have been offering online worship services since mid-March.
“Some parishioners weren’t aware that they were available on our website or on our Facebook page,” Fr. Huck said. “So they actually attended some of the more common ones like EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network). But now that they’ve found out that we have it, we saw a marked jump. Our number really went up on Palm Sunday.”
Fr. Huck also handed out hundreds of palms in the St. Philip’s parking lot last Sunday. As each car passed through, he exchanged smiles with some of his parishioners for the first time in weeks.
“I was happy to see them,” he said.
Pastor Rob Kopp of Bemidji United Methodist Church said online worship has allowed some people who normally don’t attend services to take part.
“Livestreaming has also presented an opportunity we probably should have been utilizing at an earlier time,” Kopp said. “We've had people attending the livestream and watching at other times who have not attended church with regularity for a long time. We also have had people who have never attended worship in the church. It's becoming a significant form of outreach during this strange and troubling time in our collective life.
“The church is not the building,” he added. “The congregation is really what makes up the church.”
United Methodist Church activities have been suspended, except for hosting twice-a-week Community Table meals.
“Volunteers have been producing bag lunches for distribution,” Kopp said. “Church volunteers have also assisted in meals on wheels during Holy Week. While members of my church have not been able to worship in the sanctuary together, they have made significant sacrifices on behalf of vulnerable people in our community. Many of them are also vulnerable themselves. So Lent and Easter are especially focused on living a Christian life -- following in the pattern of Jesus' sacrifice. I'm proud and pleased with my congregation.”
Kopp and his wife, Michelle Miller, have been recording worship services from their home. Miller is pastor of United Methodist churches in Fosston, Erskine and Crookston. The Easter Sunday service will be available at 7 a.m. on the Bemidji United Methodist Church Facebook page and its YouTube channel.
Anne Meredith, pastor at Zion Lutheran in Blackduck and Our Savior’s Lutheran in Kelliher, also has been providing online worship services. But she also is reaching out to members who are not able to access the services.
“The problem with my churches, and I think any church now, is that it’s more of an elderly congregation, and there are quite a few people who don’t have access to watching,” she said. “They’re feeling kind of left out, so I’m sending out cards and slowly calling people. That’s going to be my job now for the next few weeks, just calling people and talking with them.”
Meredith said the Easter message can be relevant for today’s pandemic. As an example, she used the story of the women who saw an empty tomb where the body of Jesus had been placed.
“They ran away with a combination of fear and great joy,” said Meredith, whose joint service will be streamed at 8:30 a.m. Sunday. “So you can have great joy and fear at the same time. Jesus said, ‘Do not be afraid’ in this Matthew version of the resurrection story. So for these times, that is the main message.”