The story of Jesus' death, the days of darkness for his disciples and the eventual resurrection is the same as it has been for centuries, but pastors in the Tennessee Valley believe their congregations are hearing the Easter story in a new light this year.
Easter 2020 was a holiday marked with fear and uncertainty. Easter 2021 marks, for many, the beginning of the end of the pandemic. All adults in the area are eligible for the vaccine. New case totals and deaths are a fraction of what they were in the winter. And the virus that was such a mystery 12 months ago is better understood by health experts and the general public.
There is a lot more hope this year, said the Rev. Gary Hathaway, senior pastor of Greater Tucker Missionary Baptist Church. Last April, many people did not know what to expect, especially what kind of losses the community would face, he said.
"This year, you see a light. A light, to a large degree and hopefully, near the end of the tunnel," Hathaway said. "Maybe we're not near it yet, but we can see it. I think there's just a sense of thanksgiving, a greater sense of thanksgiving because we made it through a year and now we have the vaccines. And now we're not as afraid."
The area's religious community played a major role in the story of the pandemic in the past year. A downtown pastor was the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the county. Then, a church and several individuals sued Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke over his orders to limit gatherings, which therefore closed houses of worship.
Services were held online for months while church parking lots served as locations for food distribution and pop-up testing. In recent weeks, they have become a place to provide vaccines to the community.
"Last year, we were on the cross. And we were all thinking, praying that it wouldn't be the end," Hathaway said. "But I think, this year, the thinking is the Lord has brought us through it. We still have a ways to go but it is sort of like a resurrection story."
Most churches in the area offer some form of in-person worship, typically with limited capacity and reservations opening earlier in the week. With many wanting a semblance of normalcy after months without it, Hathaway said his congregation was eager when registrations opened on Tuesday.
About 4 in 10 Christians in the United States plan to attend Easter services in person this year, down from the 6 in 10 that do so in a typical year, according to a survey published last month by Pew Research Center. However, 76% of the people surveyed said they felt very or somewhat confident they could attend their church again and be safe from COVID-19, an increase from 64% who said the same thing in July 2020.
This week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fully vaccinated individuals could safely gather for Easter indoors, without keeping distance and without masks with other fully vaccinated people. It takes about two weeks after the second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine or the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine to be considered fully vaccinated. The CDC said people who are fully vaccinated can gather without masks or distance with those in a single household who are not vaccinated as long as no one there is considered high risk for a serious case of the virus.
The safest options for celebrating holidays for unvaccinated people remains doing so online or, if in person, outdoors and with at least 6 feet of distance between households, according to the CDC.
The Rev. Courtney Krueger, pastor of First Cumberland Presbyterian Church, will deliver his message in the church's plaza on Sunday morning for a socially distanced, outdoor service. Since June, the church has held distanced, in-person services with limited capacity of around 60 people, Krueger said.
The pastor said he will be performing a baptism on Sunday for a baby born a year ago, when the coronavirus began shutting down the city. The baby's family returning to church for the ceremony is a wonderful sign of hope, Krueger said, and it is a theme he wants to bring to his Sunday message.
"This year, I'm approaching it from the perspective of, we are seeing new life as we are seeing vaccines becoming available and people starting to be able to feel like we're emerging from this kind of thing," he said.
Krueger thanked his staff for being so flexible in the past 12 months as the church transitioned to online services, then an online and in-person hybrid. They have taken lots of precautions, he said, which can be frustrating for a community that wants to gather and celebrate their faith together.
"We haven't liked it. Nobody has," Krueger said. "But I felt like we have just been of one mind about it and took pride to not rush it but find ways that we could safely meet together."
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.