A year ago, with a heavy heart as the pandemic engulfed us, I did something no other bishop of Long Island had been forced to do in over 150 years: I ordered all 138 churches in our Diocese of Long Island to close within two days. Effective March 14, there were to be no in-person services — no baptisms, no weddings or funerals and no Holy Communion. We went into lockdown just before our holiest season.
The eternal message of Easter is that death was put to death by the rising of Jesus from the dead, and the inclusion of humanity in unending and full life. But last Easter, with our churches already closed for five weeks, COVID-19 seemed to make a mockery of that message.
An early epicenter of the pandemic in the country was in Queens. At our St. John’s Episcopal Hospital in Far Rockaway, an unprecedented stream of ambulances suddenly arrived. The virus took parents, children, spouses, loved ones and friends. This included our priest in Jackson Heights, the mother of our priest in Lindenhurst, the spouse of an official of our Diocesan Convention; the head of a fellowship group in Freeport, and the father of an attending physician at St. John’s.
With our buildings closed, we learned to Zoom and worship online. We mourned the half-million lives lost across our country and prayed for the families and individuals who were the collateral heartbreak.
These became relentless reminders about Easter being more than pretty flowers at church services or soaring organ music, stained glass and glorious hymns. Easter is also about moving us beyond self to become agents for new life in others, with an enlarged sense of responsibility for those in need.
Members of St. Andrew’s in Yaphank built large outdoor "blessings boxes" and filled them with food and hygiene items for the needy to take at will. Parishioners from our Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City brought hundreds of hot lunches to hospital health care heroes. At Transfiguration Church in Freeport, St. Paul’s in Roosevelt and St. George’s in Hempstead there were cartons of food destined for neighbors hard hit by job losses. Our Church of the Ascension in Brooklyn, with the North Brooklyn Angels coalition, is still feeding 1,000 a day, with volunteers coming from every age and racial and ethnic background.
In December, it was Dr. Michelle Chester, a parishioner at Transfiguration Church in Freeport, who administered the first vaccination in the United States, to nurse Sandra Lindsay at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park.
These efforts, along with those of our interfaith colleagues as well as the persistence of the scientific community, the huge investments in research, and the determination of so many to combat the virus during this politically volatile time, appear to be helping the nation turn some significant corners in addressing the pandemic and the other crises in our society it has exposed — injustice, racism, poverty, and the lack of health care for many.
This Easter, though there is much work to be done and while we still mourn everything and everyone we lost this past year, I feel profoundly grateful for the resilience and grace of all those whose faith and prayers helped us see the possibility of new life.
As we comfort the exhausted and the afflicted, Easter dawn 2021 arrives with Zoom in the cloud and the renewed promise about the inheritance of eternal life.
The Right Rev. Lawrence C. Provenzano is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island.