Uncharted territory: Black churches prepare for a virtual Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday, known for packed pews and members dressed in the best of their Sunday best, will be a virtual experience for many this year.
Cross-Church

“CME Christian” is a popular, teasing moniker within the Black community, particularly within communities of faith. A CME Christian is someone who attends church exclusively on (C)hristmas, (M)other’s Day and (E)aster – not to be confused with a member of the Christian Methodist Episcopalian denomination.

While these three holidays represent a significant spike in church attendance, Easter — Christianity’s oldest and most important holiday — is the heavyweight. So what’s the plan for Charlotte’s would-be worshippers currently observing a statewide stay-at-home order?

Under North Carolina’s order, places of worship can stay open as long as there are no more than 10 people in attendance, who must abide by social distancing rules. For most churches, however, that’s too few people to justify a formal gathering and too big of a health risk. Most churches have been forced to move online for both worshipping and giving.

Churches are in between a rock and a hard place; they want to be an available resource for members who may need assistance after losing their job or worse – a loved one. But they’re also likely experiencing a significant drop in funds by not holding church services.

How are they dealing?

Many churches in Charlotte are echoing a common refrain heard from Christian leaders across the country, stressing “faith over fear,” a paraphrase of 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”

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“Church, as we know it, has shifted, but the work of the ministry will go on,” said Rev. Dr. Robert Scott, senior pastor at St. Paul Baptist Church, the nearly 120-year-old church located in the Belmont community. 

On March 21, St. Paul’s leaders revealed to the church’s 5,000-plus members a comprehensive plan for their approach to COVID-19, including the weeks leading up to Easter.

In addition to shifting all services online, Scott committed to increasing the church’s food bank hours from monthly to weekly to serve those affected by the pandemic. He added that young adults in their church have volunteered to deliver groceries to the elderly. St. Paul is just one of Charlotte’s Black megachurches that are using their influence for good.

Along the Beatties Ford corridor, Friendship Missionary Baptist Church has provided information from healthcare professionals and others on how to navigate the crisis and how to access stimulus relief. 

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St. Paul Baptist Church. Photo: QCity Metro

“Our media and technology team will still deliver a service that celebrates Easter and provides a message of hope. We are working to give a sense of ‘Friendship’ virtually,” said Frank McGinnis, Friendship’s director of music and arts.

Leading up to Easter Sunday, Pastor Clifford Jones is encouraging Friendship’s community of more than 8,000 members to join online Bible Study, online storytelling for children, and even walk around the church in what he calls a “Jericho walk” while praying for the church and the community.

For churches like Friendship that were livestreaming services to at least 25,000 viewers before the COVID-19 pandemic, shifting to a fully online experience is likely an easier lift. The 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. livestreams will be available via Facebook, the church’s website and on its app.

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People sing hymns during the 2017 Easter Service at The Creek Church — formerly Briar Creek Baptist Church — which relaunched after a damaging 2015 arson fire. Photo: Diedra Laird | Charlotte Observer

Smaller churches are also learning and adjusting

“We’ll be streaming Easter Sunday on Facebook Live. This is new for us, but we’re doing what we have to do,” shared First Lady Kindelyn Stovall of Resurrection Community Church.

Located in Albemarle, about an hour outside of Charlotte, Resurrection usually attracts a little over 75 churchgoers. In addition to its livestream, church leaders have also set up a CashApp account to collect tithes and offerings in lieu of in-person gifts. 

Chelsea Bradford, a frequent attendee at C.N. Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian Church, admitted that the online church service will be very strange.

“The whole purpose of Easter is about resurrection, but it’s more than that,” she said. “It’s also about getting dressed up and seeing kids with their Easter baskets. To miss out on the whole experience is sad.”

C.N. Jenkins will host a virtual service for Easter Sunday at 9 a.m. on YouTube and its website.

Easter 2020 will be unlike any other, but churches and church members alike are committing to doing what they can to observe the special day.

Uptown Charlotte resident Fecil Blango is committed to making Easter Sunday feel special regardless of the circumstances.

“I’ll be attending church online, and I will wear an Easter suit, even if I’m doing it by myself,” Blango said. “It wouldn’t be right otherwise.”