The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Easter sunrise at the Lincoln Memorial is an emotional return to church for some

People worship during the Easter service at Lincoln Memorial that was canceled for two years. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Wrapped in a green puffy blanket, with glittery gold eye shadow on her lids and sticky red “Jesus” letters on her pandemic mask, Cory Flowers was sitting on the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial. She had been in the same spot for three hours since before the Easter sun began its climb in the sky. Now her eyes were filling with tears, and the reasons were complicated.

Flowers had left her home in Baltimore at 3 a.m. for the District, arrived two hours later, thrilled to be there, her heart full, waiting for her first Easter service in person in two years. She watched throngs of people, in suits and running clothes and socks with holes, fill the stairs and plaza near her until the sun burst over the horizon. Music played, preachers preached and now the 60-year-old health worker was sitting alone again.

“If you asked me why I’m crying, I don’t know. It’s just a lot of emotion. It’s so wonderful to be here. It’s my love for God, for people, for life. I thank God for being able to be here. So much has happened with so many people in the past two years,” Flowers, who was diagnosed with cancer during the pandemic, said as she choked back tears. “If there is anyone who hasn’t learned something or changed in some way in this period, something is wrong.”

Easter was emotional and new and different for many this year, including at the Lincoln Memorial sunrise service that has been a tradition since 1979, save the last two years. Easter, normally the biggest church holiday of the year for American Christians, has morphed during the pandemic, like much of religious and spiritual life.

Christian ecologist says science not enough to fight climate despair

Some said they lost interest in the institutions and buildings of religion but not God, and the dramatic setting and Easter narrative drove that home. Others said they felt a deep relief to worship on Easter with a large group of people whose faces and outstretched arms they could physically see. Still others said they were just uplifted to watch the sunrise and hear the Christian a cappella group Voices of Lee.

Several thousand people had filled the steps as well as the plaza and side areas by 6 a.m. People came in pajamas with dogs and tins of food and blankets. They came in white fur and formal suits. They sat in wheelchairs and lawn chairs and baby wraps. The crowd spanned ages and racial and ethnic identities.

When Pastor Travis Goodman asked if Sunday was their first time at the service and if attendees were visitors to the District, a huge slice both times shot up their hands. What they shared Sunday was a return to worship in person and a service led by traditional clergy focusing, despite the patriotic backdrop, not on politics or policy but very much on the core Easter message that Jesus Christ rose from the grave for the sins of believers, and that, especially in tough times, should be a message of hope.

“It you were placing bets with Caesars Sportsbook in the first century on what would last the longest, the Roman Empire or the thing we call Christianity, you would bet the farm on Rome,” preached Pastor Mark Batterson, a nationally known author and speaker based on Capitol Hill.

“Two thousand years have come and gone, and Caesar is a salad,” he said. “How does a man who lived in an obscure outpost of the Roman Empire, who was crucified on a Roman cross, who never wrote a book, never held office, never went to college, never had a YouTube channel, win that bet? How is it that thousands of people get up at the crack of dawn, gather on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and proclaim that Jesus is Lord? The short answer: Christ is risen.”

The service was founded in the late 1970s by Virginia pastor Amos Dodge, founder of Capital Church, a Pentecostal congregation in Vienna. His church is now led by his daughter and her husband, Tara and Travis Goodman, and Batterson gave the main sermon Sunday.

Money from dying churches breathes new life into communities

Dodge said in an interview that the first service had about 130 attendees. He was able to book the permit with the Park Service within a day. Now, thousands come and it takes volunteers all night to set up. Despite the growth, he said he knows about 40 percent of his regular congregation still has not come back, a number that jibes with national polls about congregational life two years into the pandemic.

Tens of thousands of congregations “are on life support,” he said. Yet the pandemic for him and some others has also been a time to reflect and gain clarity on faith. He said the location of the service, which looks at the Capitol in a time of deep political division, is simply beautiful and meant to reflect support for the city, nothing more.

Batterson said in his sermon that the upending of daily life in the pandemic may have a profound benefit. “We have not been able to gather for two years,” he told the crowd. “We have racial tension and political polarization. People are depressed and anxious.”

“What’s happening? Here’s my take. I think God is shaking false securities and false identities and false idols. Why? The last few years have shaken our confidence in lots of man-made things, and that’s not a bad thing. Why? It reminds us that we don’t trust in horses or chariots. We trust in the name of the Lord, our God,” he said.

Dira Hawkins, 22, came from Alexandria with her friend and some fuzzy blankets. She no longer “does church” but used to attend service more often. During the pandemic she developed “different beliefs,” adding that she “started to see a lot of hostile people” in her faith circle and decided to change it. Sunday, to her, was simply an uplifting experience. “I just like the sunrise,” she said as the pair headed off to brunch.