For the past few weeks, the Rev. Richard Rhoades has been preaching to an empty sanctuary.
Rhoades has 30 years in the pulpit and has been pastor of First Evangelical Lutheran Church, 2415 Winnie St. in Galveston, for more than four. He finds himself now having to prepare to celebrate Easter with his congregation virtually.
“For the first time in any of our lifetimes, Holy Week is disrupted for us all from what we normally do,” Rhoades said. “We may not be able to do it as we normally do, but we can still observe our faith-filled traditions.”
Rhoades and members of the clergy all over the world have had to adopt new methods of ministering to their congregations during the coronavirus pandemic and this week were preparing for an Easter Sunday without some of the holy day’s most important traditions.
Normally, First Evangelical Lutheran Church would be preparing the special services of the Triduum — the Great Three Days — but because of COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings, some of the Easter traditions just won’t happen this year, Rhoades said.
The ritual washing of feet or hands on Maundy Thursday, special live music on Easter morning and the traditional procession of children carrying small palm branches and massive palms carried by older youth this past Palm Sunday had to be omitted because of COVID-19.
“In some ways, it feels as though we’ve been jettisoned into a new way of doing things that will last past these days of pandemic,” Rhoades said. “This pandemic will pass. The ‘Good News’ this Easter is a word of ‘don’t you be afraid’ amidst what feels like a seismic event in our world.”
Long-time members Carlos and Diane Peña were part of the Easter planning committee that was preparing for an Easter season filled with special processions, decorations and music.
Although grateful to still be able to share with other parishioners with the help of technology, the family was excited about its first Easter service with young grandsons who just moved to the island, Diane Peña said.
“Church is a big part of our lives, and not being with our church family has been difficult,” Diane Peña said. “Knowing that our congregation is watching the virtual service at the same time as we are makes us feel connected to them again.
“So, it’s not just the service, it’s also the feeling of community,” she said. “We miss our church family but are glad to have the spiritual strength our worship service gives us.”
‘TRUST IN JESUS — AND WASH YOUR HANDS’
The Rev. Clint Ressler, pastor of the St. Mary of the Miraculous Medal Catholic Church, 1604 Ninth Ave. N. in Texas City, has been feeling incomplete without interaction with the congregation, he said.
The church has been posting Mass services and short video messages to its social media platforms and communicating with parishioners by email and phone calls, as well as visiting more than 100 families at their homes and businesses “from the sidewalk,” Ressler said.
It has been very difficult, to say the least, he said.
“Not only has it been hard on the clergy, but our members as well,” Ressler said. “We are a family and we really miss each other and miss celebrating Mass together. Something is just incomplete when we’re not together. Not having the sacrament of confession has been very difficult, too.
“Personally, I feel God calling me closer to him,” he said. “My prayer time has been richer and more from the heart. Perhaps that’s due to the quiet and stillness.”
Deacon Joe Hensley, who has been helping Ressler prepare for services, thinks this period of social distancing is a good time to reflect on how special it is to gather for Mass, the sacraments and a true pastoral presence, he said.
“It feels so different helping Father Clint at Mass and there’s no one there,” Hensley said. “We’re all in this together. God hasn’t abandoned us, and Jesus accompanies us in this new normal. We are the church and we are here for each other to love each other and to pray for each other. Trust in Jesus — and wash your hands.”
FREEDOM TO WORSHIP IS A BLESSING
Not having a congregation in the church house had been difficult for the Rev. A. W. Colbert, too, he said.
Colbert has been pastor at Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, 2920 Ave. M 1/2, in Galveston for 27 years. He and his congregation have been staying connected on Tuesdays for Bible study and Sundays for morning worship via Facebook Live.
Normally on what Colbert called Resurrection Sunday the church would begin with a children’s resurrection program followed by worship service. This year, there will just be one virtual worship service for the regular congregation and children’s church at 8 a.m. Sunday, he said.
“A major part of worship is your presence, and it’s best when the people of God come together serving, shouting and singing praises to our God,” Colbert said. “It’s been a struggle not being able to minister to the church in person.
“Our members are doing the best that they can,” they said. “So many have told me how much they miss and long for being back with our congregation of believers. However, I’m sure that I miss them much more than they could ever miss me.”
Destin Simmons, who is the children’s church executive assistant, wears many hats at the church of which she’s been a member for 22 years.
Simmons is looking forward to the youth’s virtual resurrection program Sunday, which will go live before the Rev. E. Paul Grogan III delivers the message, she said.
“Although it’s been extremely difficult not being able to fellowship and love on our children on Tuesdays and Sundays, we’ve been able to continue reaching out to our children during this pandemic by posting on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube,” she said. “Once this is over, I’m looking forward to their many hugs and hearing about how they’ve fared through this.”
For Colbert, this has been a time to remember the freedom to worship when and where we desire is a blessing, he said.
“So much of our surviving this pandemic is our ability to maintain social contact by practicing ‘physical distancing,’” Colbert said. “Fortunately, with technology we’re able to maintain contact without physically touching or even coming in the same space of each other.”