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At another Easter amid COVID, LI churches take cautious view of congregants' return

Rev. Earl Y. Thorpe Jr., pastor of Church

Rev. Earl Y. Thorpe Jr., pastor of Church in the Garden in Garden City, talks about the Easter message being delivered in churches and remotely on Long Island this year — the second Easter keeping some parishioners from assembling in the church building. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

While Easter season is a time of rebirth for Christians worldwide, many Long Island churches are hopeful this holiday marks another step toward normalization as pandemic restrictions begin to ease.

The Diocese of Rockville Centre said its churches have been at 50% capacity for months, and many will increase the number of Masses scheduled this Easter Sunday. However, smaller churches, both Catholic and non-Catholic, said they remain cautious about opening again for in-person services — especially if their congregations are largely underserved or at-risk when it comes to health.

"We've been doing in-person since October," said Pastor Onick Bouquet of the Haitian United Methodist Church in Smithtown, adding that while his church did not hold in-person services at Christmas, it will open its doors for Easter.

"It's very complicated," he said of restrictions that previously limited seating to just 25 parishioners, adding: "We cannot do fellowship. And, we miss them."

Bouquet said he has used social media aids to conduct services and will continue to do so. But he is eager to have in-person Easter as well.

"All our members are OK, not sick; we've had nobody die," he said. "We ask they always wear a mask, social distance, and we'll screen for temperature when they come in. If it's over 99 degrees, we're not letting people in. . . . But having people come, that makes me happy."

An ongoing dilemma

Other churches holding in-person services will continue to strictly enforce protocols. At both Queen of the Most Holy Rosary in Roosevelt and St. Martha in Uniondale, seating is limited to every other pew.

However, at the United Methodist Church of Hempstead, the Rev. St. Clair A. Samuel said, Easter services will be held remotely due to COVID-19 concerns.

Perhaps no one understands the ongoing dilemma better than the Rev. Earl Y. Thorpe Jr., pastor at Church in the Garden, a long-standing American Baptist Church on Osborne Road in Garden City. Congregant Miguel Chamaidan, of Uniondale, was the first confirmed case of COVID-19 on Long Island — a diagnosis that led the Nassau County Department of Health to close the church to in-person services on March 9, 2020, Thorpe said.

The decision not to reopen for in-person Easter services is due in part to a "comfortability" issue among congregants — online remote services have worked so well in the interim, Thorpe said. But, he said, it's also due to his own reluctance to reopen the doors too soon.

"For me, as the pastor, it's my responsibility, my obligation as the caring leader of my congregation, to wait until we get the majority of our congregation vaccinated, out of harm's way," Thorpe said. "Then we can have a more robust conversation about when we can open up. . . . We can't afford, as a church, to rush things. What we can afford to be is patient. To be patient and take the long view."

Weighing into that decision, Thorpe said, is that while the physical church building is in Garden City, none of his parishioners are from the affluent area.

His multicultural congregation, with members who are predominantly Latino, Black and Asian, comes from around the region, Thorpe said, noting he is the first Black pastor at Church in the Garden.

"We've lost members to COVID," he said. "We've lost actual congregation members and we've had families who have lost members of their families. . . . The challenge has been to figure out how we're going to re-imagine church now that we've gone through a pandemic, and that doesn't just mean how we physically do that, but what the message of Christ looks like tactically in our lives."

'Significant challenges'

In his Easter 2021 message to local priests and church officials, the Most Rev. John O. Barres, bishop of Rockville Centre, wrote: "With significant challenges facing us still on Long Island and across the globe, with darkness still afoot, perhaps the joy of Easter is difficult to embrace."

He added, "Christ is alive in the countless frontline workers, civil servants, and medical professionals who have served so faithfully and so heroically this past year . . . Christ is alive in the catechumens who have received the Sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation at the Easter Vigil."

As Thorpe said: "Easter means something in the context of the pandemic, but Easter also means something in the context of hate and what's happened in our lives, happened in the world, happened in the nation this past year . . .

"What I mean is, it's not just theological," he said. "What this past year did was bring to the fore for a lot of people things that have been known for a long time. What we've [people of color have] known, what I've known. George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor. The Capitol insurrection. What, watching things unfold as we've been sitting at home this last year, we've all become aware of.

"What Easter resurrection is for Christians is a re-examination of what it means to be reborn in Christ," Thorpe said. "The significance of that is if Jesus Christ died for our sins, if we believe that, then why do we continue to live the sin Jesus Christ freed us from? What does that really mean today as we live in these times? That's that question we should ask this Easter."

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