(RNS) — For many faith groups, spring is one of the most important times of the year.
Early spring coincides with at least three major religious holidays — Easter, Passover and, this year, the beginning of Ramadan.
All three — or at least public events surrounding them — could be disrupted by the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. Over the weekend, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked Americans to cancel or reschedule any meeting of more than 50 people. President Donald Trump asked Americans on Monday (March 16) to further limit gatherings, to no more than 10 people.
Data from the National Congregations Study shows that would include 60 percent of houses of worship — and 90 percent of all people who attend worship services.
We asked religious leaders for their thoughts on what happens if these central holidays are canceled.
Here’s what they told us:
The Rev. Laura Everett, executive director, Massachusetts Council of Churches
Easter cannot be canceled. We may not gather in the same way, but Easter will not cease. The Resurrection continues. I think churches are wisely considering how to best keep people safe, and that may include not gathering in person on Easter Sunday.
Rabbi Evan Moffic, Makom Solel Lakeside Congregation in suburban Chicago
On Passover, we ask the question: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This year the answer is self-evident. We will celebrate on that night amidst a world devastated — physically and psychologically — by a pandemic.
Does Passover have a message for these trying times? Yes. In addition to the Ten Plagues and the miracles of the splitting of the Sea, what saved the Jewish people in Egypt was their unity. They did not despair when Pharaoh refused to Moses’s initial pleas. They did not despair when their enslavement grew more onerous. They listened to God and to one another. They never lose hope.
Neither can we.
The writer Alice Walker said hard times require some serious dancing. While we should not dance too closely right now, may our spirits and souls of hope sustain us.
Walter Kim, president, National Association of Evangelicals
Easter is an important marker in church life in which we remember and celebrate Jesus Christ’s resurrection. It would, of course, be incredibly disappointing not to celebrate that as we are accustomed to, but we are also reminded during this season how Jesus served us and how we are to serve others.
Hope Morgan Ward, bishop of the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church
The church can rise and shine in these times. The church can be creative in the ways we’re in contact with one another. We can offer worship on virtual platforms. We can help older people in various ways. There are lots of ways the church can engage in mission, not unlike what happens after a hurricane or tornado or some other unexpected and unprecedented occurrence in a community. It calls for generosity in new ways and connections in new ways. Suspending worship for two weeks is not suspending ministry. In fact, it’s inviting ministry in new and proactive ways and creative ways.
The Rev. Jacqueline A. Thompson, senior pastor, Allen Temple Baptist Church, Oakland, California
Given CDC recommendations, Easter — Resurrection Sunday — may preclude churches from being able to gather corporately.
However, it provides an opportunity to remind believers that the true church was never about buildings and sanctuaries. The true church remains unified by the Resurrection message of victory, triumph and hope over death, hell and the grave.
That message remains unchanged and is needed today now more than ever. May this crisis challenge the Church to explore new and innovative ways to exalt Christ over Corona by any means necessary!
Omar Suleiman, president of Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research
I’m planning to do my weekly sermon virtually (which had over 200k views this week between Facebook and Instagram), a daily series summarizing one chapter of the Quran every day in Ramadan (30 chapters in 30 days), and several other fireside chats.
The key is comfort and enabling people to recognize the unique opportunities for good in these times of isolation and desperation.
J.D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention (from a recent video)
I think it’s important for us to realize that yeah, we need to take wise precautions and we’ve got to keep people safe and think prudently. But we also know that historically, biblically, in a time of crisis, the body of Christ runs toward tragedy, not from it. We don’t retreat back in fear; we go forward in faith. This is a unique opportunity for us to be able to demonstrate the love and generosity of Christ.
I would encourage you to check out what’s happening in your community. Maybe just walk down the street and see those who are particularly vulnerable. There are opportunities for us to serve.
The Rev. Shannon Kershner, pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago
I will admit that we are in the very beginning of brainstorming about how to celebrate Easter when we are unable to physically gather together. And yet, it feels like we have an opportunity to really focus on what Easter is all about — life coming out of death; God’s best work being done in the dark when no one knows it is happening. We will certainly miss all of the celebration, the trumpets, the energy in the sanctuary, etc. But regardless if we are together in person or not, Easter happens.
No matter what, Easter always rises. And so we will celebrate God’s ability to make a way out of no way and hold on to that promise with our fingernails. We are Easter people and a pandemic does not change that truth.
The Rev. Jacqueline J. Lewis, senior minister for public theology and transformation, Middle Collegiate Church, New York City
This past Sunday, March 15, a few of my staff and some of our musicians gathered in our Manhattan sanctuary to broadcast worship, live, at 11:15 a.m. We won’t gather again for at least 8 weeks, as we seek to follow CDC guidelines regarding COVID-19 social distancing.
I can tell you God is in the suffering, in the healing, in the praying, in the living, and in the dying. God is in the worry, as in the whirlwind and whisper. … God is also in the incarcerated man, making hand sanitizer for $.86 an hour and in the woman hoarding sanitizer in her garage. God is in a cage on the border, and in the cruel person pouring water out so folks can’t drink it. God is in the governor shutting it down and in POTUS pretending it’s going to be OK. (That one is super hard for me to write.) There is some little bit of the Divine in each of us, hungry, thirsty for clean water, living on the streets or in a Penthouse. If we could feel the horrible power of that — each one a little like God — we’d also feel the truth of the Ubuntu philosophy: I am who I am because we are who we are. Your survival and mine are linked. When you are standing right in front of me (or behind me in line in the grocery store, or on a Zoom conference call) God is right there. In you and in me. We are inextricably connected in a web of humanity, is the way Dr. King described it. We can survive this virus, as a people, as a species, with that in mind.
Amber Neuroth, pastor, Hope United Church of Christ, Alexandria, Virginia
As people of faith, we certainly grieve the loss of routine in our lives and in our churches, but the church calendar is an expression of our faith in a spiritual reality. It is not the spiritual reality itself. Easter represents our belief that there is a truth that illness, fear, pandemic, economic distress and even death cannot touch. That truth is God’s incredible love for us.
Once a year, we come together on Easter Sunday to celebrate that reality in all its fullness with trumpets, flowers, baskets, brunches, and words of great joy. This year, we most likely won’t be able to celebrate that love with those symbolic expressions on the designated day, but our faith in God’s love abides.
We will be relying on it in the days ahead and trusting that there will be a day when we can join together as a community in person again. The first thing we will celebrate is the power of God’s love, the power of love over pandemic and death.
That day, whenever it comes, will be Easter Sunday!
Adelle M. Banks, Yonat Shimron, Emily McFarlan Miller and Bob Smietana contributed to this report.