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Churches improvise Palm Sunday services to mark start of Holy Week

Bishop Lionel Harvey of the First Baptist Church of Westbury distributed palms to congregants waiting in their cars in the church parking lot on Sunday. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Long Island Christians inaugurated their Holy Week on Sunday with drive-through sacraments and garden clippings in lieu of palm branches as churches continue to adapt to social distancing orders during the coronavirus pandemic

The improvised ceremonies on Palm Sunday, which celebrates the day Christians believe Jesus entered Jerusalem before his Easter resurrection, came as Long Islanders braced for difficult days ahead in the fight against the virus, which has infected more than 26,000 people in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Sunday said the pandemic could be nearing its apex in New York State, and U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams warned, "the next week is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment."

That troubling prospect made maintaining some semblance of the tradition of Palm Sunday — in which churches of various denominations usually bless and distribute palm branches to congregants — especially important, Long Island pastors said.

At First Baptist Cathedral of Westbury, that meant giving palms and prepackaged Communion to congregants waiting in their cars in the church parking lot.

"Those of you who are able to get out, we would say: put on your mask, get in your cars, lower your window and we will give you the elements," Bishop Lionel Harvey said in his Sunday sermon to empty pews and an audience watching on a Facebook livestream.

Parishioners obliged — more than 100 cars' worth, Harvey said after the service. A video of the event shows church deacons wearing masks and gloves delivering the palms and individually wrapped containers of wafers and juice to the seat-belted congregants as Harvey waved to them, a curled staff in his hand and a mask over his mouth.

The ceremony was further clouded by the deaths last week of two church deacons who had contracted the virus.

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"Corona has taken so much from us," Harvey said. "We refuse to let it take away our faith."

In Lake Ronkonkoma, an order of some 125 palms never made it to St. Mary's Episcopal Church, so rector John Shirley advised congregants to make do with resources at hand.

"If you have palms left over" from last year, "please grab them now," he said in his livestreamed Sunday sermon. Or "perhaps an evergreen or a daffodil or something to lift up today."

Shirley's own palm was left over last year, he said in an interview Sunday afternoon. He supplemented it with a hyacinth and some greens from daffodils in his garden.

"It's not ideal, by any means, but it's a way of moving forward and still honoring this sacred time," he said.

Whether with a palm, a stem or a fistful of grass, Shirley said he hoped the tradition reminded parishioners that, even isolated in their homes, they still belonged to a community.

"We do this separate but together out of love to protect one another," he said in his sermon.

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