The annual Easter message of hope will echo in empty churches across Chattanooga on Sunday as the city and state remain under coronavirus-inspired orders to stay inside. COVID-19 has put millions of Americans out of work, closed businesses across the city and now upended the traditions of the holiest day on the Christian calendar in the most churchgoing city in America.
There will be no sunrise service at the National Cemetery. In a matter of days last month, Stuart Heights Baptist Church went from promoting its annual Easter Egg hunt in Coolidge Park to advertising "Easter on the Couch" for the church's online service.
However, Chattanooga's pastors said the Easter story of hope is more relatable than ever as the world copes with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The virus has made people aware of their neighbors and their own vulnerability, said Tim Kirk, interim senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church. The feeling of helplessness aligns with what the disciples of Jesus were feeling during this time, he said.
"Holy Week increasingly becomes darker and darker until Good Friday, then the light of Sunday dawns," Kirk said. "And in this atmosphere, we're more aware of the darkness in our own lives and in our cities."
Many people turn to the church in times of crisis, even as the risk of spreading the deadly virus has shut down entire cities and closed the doors of the city's houses of worship.
Some churches have been forced to navigate the digital landscape of livestreamed or recorded services as they balance continuing to serve their surrounding communities. Catholic priests have made home visits to families, blessing them as they gather in a front yard. This month, the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church ended drive-in church services over fears of spreading COVID-19 and announced people could take communion on their own in their homes.
This week, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke encouraged church leaders not to hold drive-in services and advised people to continue sheltering in place.
"This is another deeply sad decision that I have had to confront in the last several weeks: the very things that give us so much joy and life — community and fellowship, particularly through worship — are the very things we must avoid now in order to stop the spread of this terrible disease," Berke said in an online statement.
During the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department daily media briefing on Thursday, Bill Ulmer, division director at the health department, asked houses of worship to continue streaming services and called on faith leaders to spread the message that people need to stay at home to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Sheryl Randolph, pastor of Destiny Church of Chattanooga, said she is encouraging her congregation to balance taking in the news with remaining steady in reading scripture and prayer. Many are upset the church doors are closed. More than half of Americans wanted to go to church on Sunday if in-person services were available, according to a recent survey by WalletHub.
Randolph said the situation is no reason to lose faith.
"The psychological impact that this is having on people is just as great as some of the physical things that we are experiencing, so we want to make sure that people are ushered to a sound mind and a joyful spirit," she said.
The pastor said she is telling members of her church to remember the last storm they endured, whether it was losing a job or a health scare, and realize they survived. Faith helped overcome a previous challenge and it can help overcome the current one, she said.
"It's so much, but in the words of our savior, 'I'll be back.' Just keep getting up. Just keep moving forward. A brighter day is coming," Randolph said.
Father Quinn Parman, rector of St. Peter's Episcopal Church, said the fears over the pandemic can help Christians better understand the kinds of hardship others in the faith around the world experience on a daily basis.
"It feels very different this year," Parman said. "But in some ways, the Christian confession that Christ is risen is always proclaimed in a world that is broken, in a world that is still hurting and struggling and pained in all kinds of ways."
The virus has already impacted the local faith community, with Hamilton County's first confirmed case being the rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church and, last month, a professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland testing positive.
The tradition of shouting "hallelujah" has occurred in periods of intense sadness in the church. Christians today are joining in that tradition, Parman said.
"We are learning in an acute way what we were always called to do, which is to proclaim joy and grace in a time of pain," he said.
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.