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Church leaders: Messages of hope, renewal important this Easter

News Photo by Julie Riddle Surrounded by upside-down chairs to promote social distancing, Pastors Karen and Greg Zurakowski discuss church traditions days before the Christian celebration of Easter at Grand Lake Community Chapel in Presque Isle on Wednesday.

ALPENA — Last Easter, Rev. John Shipman stood on the bank of a river at sunrise, alone.

The pastor of St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church in Alpena, Shipman had told his members to stay home on the Christian church’s holiest day of the year as the coronavirus rolled into Northeast Michigan.

Possibly the weirdest Easter ever, last April 12 was, for many in church circles, a day of longing — for lilies and egg hunts, for trumpet blasts and hallelujahs and hearty handshakes.

This Easter, some local congregations will be back in pews, dressed in their Sunday best. Others will still be at home, singing from their couches.

Either way, the church at large has a mission as the pandemic gradually recedes, church leaders say — to offer hope to a world that will never be quite normal again.

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For Shipman, Easter of 2020 started with a message livestreamed from a riverbank. Motorists at a drive-by service later that day waited more than an hour to receive a blessing from their pastor.

The pandemic and its restrictions created its fair share of loneliness, It spawned division, too, Shipman said.

The church and its Easter message of acceptance can be a salve to societal division and unrest, helping people see others as created and loved by God, the pastor said.

People who venture into a church building on Easter this year may not understand the Christian teachings about resurrection.

“But they understand pain,” Shipman said. “They understand struggle. They understand isolation.”

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At Trinity Episcopal Church in Alpena, this year’s Easter worship will look like most Sundays in 2020 — virtual.

“All of us wish we could just get back in there and start singing again,” Pastor Bill McClure said. “Goodness, I’m a singer, and I haven’t been able to sing safely for a year.”

Advised by several church leaders who are also in the medical field, McClure has held off on in-person worship services, even at the Christian high holiday.

He worried about space restrictions if the congregation held a service on Easter — along with Christmas, typically the best-attended service of the year at many churches.

Safety guidelines say churches shouldn’t fill every pew.

“How do you do that at Easter?” McClure wondered. “Take reservations? Turn people away at the door?”

A painful transition for members at first, the church’s virtual worship services — streamed on Facebook and YouTube — are easier to bear now that vaccines are being pumped into arms and members can see the light at the end of the tunnel, McClure said.

Without the rhythms of Sunday worship, quilting bees, and soup suppers, the church as a whole is being called to be more genuine, McClure said.

With rituals stripped away, members and congregations are pushed to evaluate who they are, what they want, and what role they want to play in the community, McClure said.

“Being faithful is much more than being in the building,” McClure said. “It’s not that there has to be an either-or, but our both-and becomes much richer.”

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Chats over coffee have been nixed at Grand Lake Community Chapel in Presque Isle, but, in many other ways, the congregation’s Holy Week services will be normal — albeit with chairs turned upside-down on every other pew.

Greg Zurakowski — who co-pastors the chapel and Westminster Presbyterian Church in Rogers City with his wife, Karen — remembers the emotional devastation of having to cancel last year’s Easter service.

“Christ still rose from the dead,” Zurakowski said. “But not having the service — that was just gut-wrenching.”

As the Christian church gears up to celebrate new life on Sunday, the world is moving toward new life, too — the new life found in vaccination needles, and the new mindset of a world that has learned to care for others, Zurakowski said.

It’s a new future that, even when society returns to something resembling normal, is going to be different than it was before. But that new future, like the new spiritual life promised in the Christian teachings of Easter, isn’t bad, the pastor said.

“There is a tomorrow,” Zurakowski said. “And tomorrow will be good. Even if it’s a bit different.”

As society recovers from physical, political, and social stress, he remembers stories his parents told of the Great Depression and World War II. At that time, the church was a beacon of hope and a place of stability — a role it fills again today, the pastor said.

“God’s got this,” Zurakowski said. “The sky’s not falling. It’s right where God put it.”

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