Churches celebrate Easter revival after two years of COVID-19

Standing before his parishioners, Reverend Lamont Higginbottom Sr. appeared to be a rejuvenated man.

It was Palm Sunday morning and the pews of Second Baptist Church in Erie were full of a renewed sense of life, a feeling that seemed elusive for the past two years when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the church doors to close and left a community on edge.

Higginbottom, invoking the spirit of the Easter season, ascended the pulpit with a message of hope, a call for a fresh start as the closing notes of “The Storm is Over Now” soared crescendo.

“Can you feel the breaking of a brand new day?” he exclaimed. “I just think it’s going to get better.”

It was a message that hit home.

Of the congregation of over 700 church members, only a fraction have succumbed to COVID-19. But like so many churches in the Erie area, Second Baptist could not escape the pervasive trauma of the times, of a pandemic that seemingly stripped the comforts brought by the church in times of hardship: the community. Unity. Human contact.

More challenging still, Second Baptist, located at 757 E. 26th St., was the only downtown church to open for funerals — COVID-related or otherwise — during the pandemic, an arduous task that has sometimes led to two to three funerals per week and more than 80 over the past two years.

Along the walls of a church back room were a slew of memorial cards, each depicting a now departed smiley face, each a sobering reminder of the trauma still present.

As Higginbottom said, “The air was heavy with grief – you could feel it.”

Coping with grief

In the Christian faith, Easter is a celebration of rebirth after a time of suffering.

For local churches, the re-emergence of COVID-19 suffering required connection and continuity, from livestreaming services and outdoor worship to routine calls for social assistance to those unable to leave their homes. .

Linda Graffius, health and care ministry coordinator at Luther Memorial Church in Erie, said staff and volunteers work tirelessly to stay connected with church members.

In addition to virtual services, the church delivered meals; make calls for social assistance; make recovery cards; and even sent newsletters with COVID-19 safety tips to the most vulnerable, Graffius said.

But managing the grief was trickier.

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COVID restrictions have prevented large groups of people from entering churches and mourning together.

Higginbottom spoke about the funeral of a teenager who died of a drug overdose. Despite the boy’s popularity, COVID restrictions only allowed for a small number of mourners, leaving a sense — at least, in Higginbottom’s heart — that proper closure had not been achieved.

“We did some streaming. We did an outdoor funeral. We did everything we could to make the families grieve, but it was always different,” he said.

The struggle led Higginbottom to begin bereavement counseling sessions and invite Parris Baker, a professor and director of social work programs at Gannon University, to speak about bereavement to his congregation.

Gannon University professor Parris Baker, shown in his office on June 12, 2020, spoke about grief to members of the Second Baptist Church.

Baker, himself a pastor, described what he’s seen during the pandemic as “complicated grief,” tied not to one loss but to many.

“During the pandemic, you lost your freedoms. You lost your job. You lost your life. And that grief sometimes gets so intense because you can’t separate it,” Baker said in an interview with the Erie Times- News. .

Baker encouraged those coping with grief to be open with their feelings and not be afraid to seek professional help.

He also spoke of believing in hope, corporate prayer and the redemptive story of Christ, insisting that the pews may be a little emptier these days, but that the church – and the Erie community – can rise again.

“Easter is a traumatic time,” Baker said. “It’s about a bloody savior who’s been beaten to death. But then there’s resurrection. There’s redemption. It’s about knowing that while we’re going through this suffering, there’s a positive ending, although we can’t see it now.”

Find hope and healing

The easing of COVID-19 restrictions has returned a sense of normalcy to religious services.

But for Higginbottom, the pandemic — and the way it has been handled — has fostered a new perspective, or rather a “different value system” for the church.

“We value human life differently. We understand how fragile it is,” he said.

Pastor Tim George of Bethel Baptist Church in Erie said the trauma of the past two years and the durability of the human spirit has crystallized the idea of ​​hope from darkness, and parishioners should take comfort in it .

Left to right: Malitha Colvin, Lorraine Lee and Reverend Lamont Higginbottom Sr. speak at Second Baptist Church in Erie.

“The whole idea of ​​Easter from a biblical perspective is that in what man perceives to be the darkest moment, it’s actually the beginning of the greatest hope we can have,” he said. -he declares.

Higginbottom recalled services provided by Second Baptist at the height of the pandemic, including a COVID-19 vaccination clinic and blood drive, as well as clothing and meals.

He said he wanted to continue offering bereavement counseling sessions and live worship services on Facebook, insisting the pandemic has forced the church to be ‘more outward looking’ .

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Memorial cards remembering those who died are displayed at Second Baptist Church in Erie, which was the only downtown church to open for funerals — COVID-related or not — during the pandemic.

As for how the church has endured the past two years, Higginbottom, who once again turned to his joyous parishioners on Palm Sunday, attributed it to prayer.

“We have something inside of us that allows us to take a lick and keep ticking,” he said. “We did it by praying and calling on the name of the Lord. That’s how we did it. And that’s how we will continue to do it.”

AJ Rao can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ETNRao.

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