Leadership from a variety of Frederick churches gathered in Baker Park on Good Friday for a cross walk, stopping at different points on their procession, many sharing the burden of carrying the large, wooden cross while telling the story of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
The event was an opportunity for Christians to come together and reflect on the meaning of the holy day, said the Rev. Dr. Sarah Dorrance, the leader of the new 24/7 Prayer Room located on East 4th Street.
“Jesus prayed for the unity of the church and so here we are all gathered together. We’re not celebrating one church over another,” she said. “We’re celebrating what Jesus did and remembering what Jesus did.”
That togetherness is something still relatively novel for many Frederick houses of worship as they resume in-person services. While County Executive Jan Gardner allowed churches to reopen last summer, many chose not to open their doors until recently.
The Rev. Dr. Dana Werts of Brook Hill United Methodist Church, who had the idea for the walk, said coming together — albeit with masks — was a huge relief. A few months ago, she wasn’t sure people would feel comfortable coming together.
Her associate pastor, Josh Gillen, also saw the opportunity to come together for the Good Friday walk as a prime example of moving forward through the pandemic.
“I think a lot of people have to realize that they don’t need to live in fear, but they still have to be cautious and still be hopeful,” he said. “This is something that’s been a part of our lives now for a whole year, and it’s something that we can kind of keep our lives going, but we have to be smart about it.”
That sentiment also transfers to the return of in-person services, which Brook Hill resumed two weeks ago. While some people are comfortable returning, the church is also continuing to livestream its services for those who wish to stay home.
“It’s just a process of figuring out how to be safe yet provide that space for people who are ready to come back,” Werts said. “As people have vaccines, people are more eager to come back.”
Gillen only started at Brook Hill last July, and has mainly gotten to know the congregation through Zoom. While he was already accustomed to the online church experience while at his last church, getting to know people without in-person services was initially tricky. Now, he’s meeting more people face-to-face.
“You get a lot of energy from being able to preach and teach in front of a group of people, even if it’s a smaller group,” he said. “It just feels better to have somebody live in the room.”
Other churches in the area have had similar experiences to the ones described by the leaders at the walk on Friday.
The Rev. Dr. Barbara Kershner Daniel of Evangelical Reformed United Church of Christ agreed that physically being together to worship is a better experience than online. She’s seen attendance for in-person services, which re-started in July, tick up in recent weeks as more people become fully vaccinated.
Throughout the pandemic, she’s sent hand-written cards to every member of the congregation each month, since she wasn’t able to speak with everybody on Sundays anymore.
“It’s become a spiritual practice almost as I’m writing the card out thinking about that family or that individual and praying for them and hoping to see them soon,” she said.
Collective Church, which moved into its first permanent space this January, held their first in-person service in March, exactly a year after they were shut down by the pandemic. Lead pastor Michael Bartlett said the experience of having the congregation in the auditorium was much more emotional than he expected.
“I guess for me, personally as the lead pastor of this church, I was carrying a lot more weight than I thought I was,” he said. “And being back in the building just felt like a pressure was taken off of me that I didn’t know that I had chosen to put on myself.”
The church continues to hold services both online and in-person. Enforcing safety mandates like mask-wearing hasn’t been difficult, he said, because everybody knows what they need to do to enjoy Collective regardless of their personal opinions.
“It’s just really cool to be in a place where you know there’s people in the room that disagree — that care about [the pandemic] more, care about it less, who have been impacted by it more, impacted by it less,” Bartlett said. “But for the brief 50 minutes of Sunday morning, that’s not what people are focusing on.”
For many church leaders, this Easter season feels like a light at the end of the tunnel, whereas a year ago felt confusing and upsetting.
“Last year, it felt like we were still in the cocoon,” Werts said, “and now we’re trying to come out and fly.”
Still, things are not back to normal. Daniel noted that many congregants are disappointed by the lack of singing, which isn’t considered safe during the pandemic. She knows people will be sad to not hug each other on Easter Sunday. But she thinks things are trending in the right direction.
“Easter is the season of hope and new life, so I’m grateful that we’re able to gather and celebrate those gifts,” Daniel said. “I think it’s gonna mean a lot to people to be able to see each other and to be in a place that gives them comfort and hope.”
Seeing the small group gathered in the cold Friday morning to spend time in each other’s company and share the story of Easter, Dorrance also felt hopeful for the future.
“Easter is the greater celebration of all the days on the church calendar, more than Christmas,” she said. “Even though it’s not necessarily acknowledged that way out in the world, it’s the day we celebrate hope.”