Several Christian clergy members said they had hoped to host more people in person by Easter, generally considered the most important day in the Christian calendar, but because of public health restrictions, many will not be able to pack sanctuaries. For instance, St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Northwest normally would host up to 1,200 people per Mass on Easter but instead will hold 150 people with reservations during each of seven Masses this year.
With major holidays including Passover and Ramadan approaching, some religious leaders are itching to open the doors to more congregants in coming weeks, while others are urging caution until the warmer months, when coronavirus case numbers are expected to be even lower. Across the spectrum, clergy members all appear to agree on one thing: Hope is on the horizon.
“Easter is about life,” said the Rev. Ronald Jameson, the rector of St. Matthew’s. “It’s about going from darkness to light. That’s exactly where we’re at at this moment. We have the vaccine; people are feeling a little more comfortable.”
While fewer than half of Christians who previously attended church regularly have done so in the past month, more than 6 in 10 Christians who normally attend Easter services plan to do so this year, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center.
Like St. Matthew’s, churches across the Washington region will adapt their services for Easter, and most will adjust to whatever rules local authorities have set for building capacity.
Florida Avenue Baptist Church, also in Northwest Washington, will hold its first in-person worship service in a year on Easter Sunday. The church has for more than 20 years held a sunrise service outside on the plaza in front of Howard Hospital, said the Rev. Earl D. Trent Jr., the church’s senior pastor, and this year, it will host a service on the hospital plaza beginning at 10:30 a.m. with praise music, during which worshipers will be socially distanced and masked.
At East Washington Heights Baptist Church in Southeast Washington, the Easter egg hunt will be a drive-by event with a cardboard resurrection scene where church members can take selfies, as well as an in-person Easter service on the church lawn, said the Rev. Kip Banks, the church’s senior pastor.
Amanda Hendler-Voss said her first Sunday as pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ near the White House was on March 17, 2020, the first Sunday the church switched to virtual services, so she has never met most of her congregation. Her church will have its Easter service virtually again but is planning outdoor gatherings of small groups so she can meet members.
There are significant religious and racial differences among those who plan to attend Easter services this year. According to Pew, 52 percent of evangelical Protestants plan to attend, compared with 27 percent of mainline Protestants and 31 percent of those in historically Black Protestant churches.
As houses of worship return to physical gatherings, many leaders are planning to maintain virtual streaming, said Jamie Aten, the executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois. And churches that once packed in audiences might need to shift their strategies. Megachurches were once seen as a gold standard of success by some, he said, but churches will be looking for ways to foster community spirit in smaller settings.
“On a psychological level, we’re definitely seeing a turning point coming around Easter,” Aten said.
Overall, fewer typical worship attendees say their congregations are closed for in-person services than last summer (a drop from 31 percent to 17 percent), with most saying their congregations are open with some restrictions. Just 12 percent say their churches are open as normal, according to Pew.
The Biden administration, Aten said, has been communicating in much more detail with faith leaders with updates from FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, especially on how to help people get vaccinated.
“The previous administration was more like a PR, this is why you should vote for us,” he said of emails from then-President Donald Trump’s staffers. “Most communication was about this is what the previous administration was doing in terms of religious protections, little on how faith communities could help.”
Ahead of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting and prayer during which Muslims typically gather to break their fast and pray together after sundown, mosque leaders are debating how to hold gatherings. Nihad Awad, the national director of Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that about 150 Muslim leaders, physicians, scholars and activists across the country have been communicating over a WhatsApp chain about their plans but that most leaders are following local public health guidance.
Awad said he was last in a mosque on March 15, 2020. People will sometimes invite him to have a meal with them after mosque prayers, he said, but he always declines.
“The virus [spread] just takes one time where you’re not careful,” he said. “I say, just be patient.”
Washington’s Adas Israel Congregation, one of the largest and oldest Conservative Jewish movement synagogues in the region, will hold a Passover Seder online because people won’t be able to eat with masks on in a congregant setting. But its leaders hope to have more in-person gatherings in the parking lot as the weather warms but even as some are worried about cicadas, which are expected to emerge in prodigious numbers later this spring in the Washington area.
“Can you imagine coming out of this, there’s hope for being able to see each other, and the first thing that happens is an infestation?” said Aaron Alexander, a co-senior rabbi of Adas Israel in Northwest Washington. “If that’s not a Passover story, I don’t know what is.”
Before the pandemic, shabbat services at the synagogue would draw nearly 1,000 people, but leaders are allowing 50 people right now, guided by recommendations from its own task force. During Purim, nearly 800 people came to the parking lot in shifts, so the synagogue’s rabbis are hopeful the warmer weather will allow for larger gatherings.
“We will deal with the cicadas,” said Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, Adas’s co-senior rabbi. “We’ll wear hazmat suits or something.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.