April 12, 2020, was another gorgeous spring day in Charleston. The sun rose through a few scattered clouds atop the horizon of the Atlantic, casting rays of light on Waterfront Park and the market, then down East Bay and King and Meeting streets. Patches of light filtered through vast canopies of weeping willows and thick-branched oaks. It was a perfect morning, but many are in the low country.
This spring morning in April 2020 was unique for two reasons. It was Easter Sunday, and hardly anyone was outside of their homes to experience it.
An Easter like no other
Accounts differ as to why Charleston is referred to as the Holy City, no one can deny the deep religious roots entrenched in the city’s culture. Steeples like skyscrapers of divine glory pop up across the city’s skyline. The ornate architecture of many churches attracts as many tourists as parishioners, and Easter Sunday attracts many of both.
With the Covid-19 pandemic shuttering many houses of worship nationwide, the hallowed sanctuaries of Charleston had little choice but to close their doors until things felt safer. Families normally positioned in pews wearing suits and ties and flowery dresses found themselves on the couch in pajamas worshipping through a live-streamed service.
The coronavirus did, for one year at least, disrupt the normalcy of Easter Sunday for many churches. During Holy Week, the week that leads up to Easter Sunday, many churches resumed some capacity of their typical Easter activities. But the deeper question remains: How have the events of the past year affected people’s belief in God? How has it shaken their faith?
Faith stretched thin
While statistics show Americans’ religious faith has strengthened in the past year, it doesn’t mean people haven’t experienced stress and worry from the pandemic. Steve Heron, lead pastor of Citadel Square Baptist Church reflected on why many struggle to have faith in God: “With Covid, it’s been a strange year. The pandemic has been interpreted in many ways. People are fearful and anxious.”
In the aftermath of 2020’s pandemic and race riots, like other devastating events such as Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 attacks, people are questioning God’s goodness and love for humanity. “Circumstances reveal our hearts and our belief in how strong we are,” Heron says. “There’s widespread belief among people that God is not out there and is not connected to my day-to-day life. They look to finances and relationships and vocations.”
Heron also points to Hebrews 11:6 (ESV) which states Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
“Many believe in God but don’t believe he is good and that they can rely on him. But God created all of the world and it’s worth exploring and asking if God created us then he knows what works best. And if he knows more than me, then a relationship with God is worth exploring.”
When it comes to surviving traumatic events in America, few churches have sustained and thrived like Bethel United Methodist Church at the corner of Calhoun and Pitt Street. The church has been meeting since 1797, surviving not only hurricanes and illness but wars. During the Civil War in January 1865, then minister E.J. Maynardie wrote “though a shell has fallen but a few steps from the Church, yet every Sabbath the building is filled with serious and attentive worshipers.”
Now in the middle of a pandemic, Reverend Susan Leonard sees that same resiliency in the congregation. She understands too that circumstances can affect one’s view of God.
“Often what keeps some from trusting God is that they’ve been given an image or understanding of God that is distant or punitive. It is a picture of a God who is over and above, not a God who is with us. Jesus came to make the truth of God’s character known.”
Connecting with a vengeful God
One classic Far Side comic shows an illustration of God sitting in front of a computer. On the screen is an image of a piano dangling from a rope with an unsuspecting man standing under. Looking intently at the monitor, God’s index finger hovers just above the keyboard, specifically over the “smite” button.
For many Americans, this is the way they picture God: one who is angry, vengeful, and continually casting judgment on us all. Rev. Leonard also points out a growing apathy among many non-Christians about God and faith. “They don’t see a genuine difference in those who claim to be Christian.”
Easter is not a mere celebration of God’s goodness, but a recognition of the man Christians believe to be God’s Son, Jesus Christ. It’s through Jesus that, according to Rev. Leonard, Christians come to truly know God.
“We see God in the face of Jesus. What is God like? We look to Jesus. Jesus moves to the margins. He welcomes in. He always has more grace for us than we even ask for. To know God, look at the life and teachings of Jesus.”
Rev. Heron echoes this sentiment.
“Many believe God is too big to care about what we worry about, but when we look to Christ we see someone who experienced betrayal, saw friends die, and faced suffering and hardship. When we see that, Jesus does a great job helping us understand what’s important.”
To an outsider, it would be difficult to balance the idea of an angry, vengeful God and a compassionate, kind Jesus. The benchmark Bible verse that Christians point to that conveys the true character of God is John 3:16 (ESV) which says “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Without Jesus exhibiting the love of God, Easter would seem to be void of any real meaning for churches.
Hope not found in Easter eggs
Easter is traditionally celebrated not just with church and family gatherings, but Easter egg hunts. Parents will hide eggs filled with candy around the yard or a park for children to diligently search for in hopes of collecting as many as possible. In 2021, children (and adults) are looking for something other than candy.
The stress of the isolation created by the pandemic caused medical visits related to mental health to increase substantially among children in 2020. Being quarantined and isolated from friends and even family at times has taken a toll on children. For kids and their parents, finding hope in their faith and God can help.
“Easter comes to remind us of a deeper reality than that one man, Jesus, at one time long ago, was raised from the dead after he had been betrayed and beaten and wrongly accused.,” states Leonard. “Christ is Risen! Christians will proclaim on Easter. But in his rising, we are given the template for all the small and significant deaths that we face. The God of love, who raised Jesus, is the God who declares resurrection on the other side of every death. Easter declares that the worst things will never be the last things in the hands of God. Easter is the pattern for how life works.”
The hope Christians find in the Easter season comes from the story of Jesus; the son of God that was an actual incarnation of God on the earth. They believe Jesus lived a perfect life, then died a cruel death on a cross as the way for people to be forgiven for their sin.
“The cross is the length Christ will go to join us in our humanity and the extent that God loves us.”
Rev. Heron points out “Jesus is solving the biggest problem we have. His life, death, burial, and resurrection focuses on our broken relationship with God.” There is hope, Heron believes, in not only the death of Jesus but his resurrection. The Bible records that three days after he was crucified on a cross, Jesus rose from the dead.
“The resurrection does two things: it allows me to know my sins are actually forgiven, and it gives me peace in my circumstances. Everyone looks for that, have peace during tough circumstances.”
Covid has, in many ways, stripped hope from many people. The isolation it’s forced us into, the stress and anxiety it perpetrates, and the tangible losses such as jobs and health, even death. For those doing soul searching, the pandemic has created complex questions that seem to have no answers. That’s not lost on church leaders. When it comes to God, states Rev. Leonard, “we try to make it logical, but God is above logic and reason. That’s why it’s called faith.”
Easter 2021: Online (and Offline)
Citadel Square Baptist is one of the oldest churches in Charleston, and despite a congregation full of people of all ages, the pandemic forced them to update their methodology. “We didn’t change the message, just the packaging,” said Rev. Heron. Citadel Square began sending audio recordings of their weekly sermons, then video content. The pandemic thrust the church to rethink strategies, diving deeper into investing time and energy into small groups. “The lifeblood of the church are those Monday through Saturday relationships. God designed us to be in community and have relationships that extend beyond Sunday morning.”
For Rev. Leonard and Bethel United Methodist Church, the pandemic also forced them to move virtual with their services. While the shift made in the spring of 2020 was difficult, Leonard found positives from it. “Some are now part of Bethel that don’t live in Charleston. Streaming online has given us the ability to reach not only people in the southeast but in three different continents. So the downside is that we haven’t had real community, but still our community is expanding.”
For both Citadel Square and Bethel, the past year has proven that church is not about a building. Rev. Leonard says, “When the church has to leave the building, the church doesn’t end.” Both churches will be offering the opportunity for attendees to gather in person in multiple services for Easter Sunday.
Beyond Easter Sunday
For most churches in America, Easter and Christmas are the two biggest times of the year in terms of attendance. But the work of the church goes on well beyond the singing and praying that occur on Sundays.
For Citadel Square Baptist, the mission is to “preach the word, make disciples, and make the gospel known.” Part of this takes place in various missions and outreach programs such as work with local schools like Sanders-Clyde Elementary School, connecting with kids and teachers there. They also minister to the homeless population in and around Marion Square handing out blessing bags to those in need.
Rev. Leonard at Bethel United Methodist Church says that even through the pandemic, their church “never stopped feeding people.” She notes whether it’s spiritual nourishment through visiting those unable to leave their home or physically feeding people through their weekly food pantry, the work of the church has not stopped. Bethel works to help the Lowcountry Food Bank and even hosts a farmer’s market monthly for people in the community.
While Rev. Heron and Rev. Leonard are excited to have people back in church this Easter, they both recognize it’s God, not the church, that saves people and offers hope. “We’re a school of love where we are learning and practicing the ways of Jesus so that earth may look more like heaven,” states Leonard. “Jesus doesn’t ask people to come to a place, a church, or a synagogue. It’s not to a place, it’s to a way of life.”