Easter is a very special time for the Rev. Darryl Winston.

It’s about faith and family.

This year, though, the coronavirus has changed the way people will gather during Easter, Passover and Ramadan.

Instead of an in-person worship service, Winston, a pastor of Greater Works Assembly church in Atlanta, will livestream Good Friday and Easter services. Easter speeches by the youth will be on Zoom video. The Saturday before Easter is usually reserved for work in the community helping the homeless or victims of human trafficking. That’s been postponed as well.

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The pandemic is affecting the way three of the world’s largest Abrahamic religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — will observe sacred faith traditions during some of the most holy days of those religions that typically involve large gatherings of families and friends during worship and shared meals. Things like church-sponsored pageants, Easter egg hunts, Seder and iftar, the post-fast meals, are scaled back, to family only, going online or not held at all.

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After services, typically, between 35 and 40 people then gather at Winston’s Marietta home for Easter dinner, a time for people to showcase their best dishes. This year, it will be a quieter dinner with Winston, his wife and their four children.

He plans to somehow incorporate Skype or Zoom video conferencing for fellowship with relatives during the day.

Passover Seder meals won’t be the same this year, especially for those who usually gather extended family for the event. In this 2008 file photo, Cyndi Sterne (left) teaches children from a home school group out of Perimeter Church about Passover Seder dinner during a tour of the Sophie Hirsh Srochi Discovery Center at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. AJC FILE
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“The highlight is always the coming together and the ability to center the spirit,” said Winston. “We gather on that day as a family. That’s what makes it so fulfilling and joyful. Uncles and fathers and people who normally wouldn’t come to church show up on that day. It’s definitely going to be different. We’re in a different time, but we’re still able to worship, so that’s a blessing.”

Many churches, mosques and synagogues have been livestreaming worship as the virus has rapidly spread in Georgia and the rest of the nation. Others, like Life Church Smyrna has been livestreaming as well as hosting drive-in worship services where the pastor’s message and music are broadcast on FM radio as worshipers never leave their cars. 

The Archdiocese of Atlanta recently outlined new guidelines for its parishes. Those extend the suspension of Masses through April 19, which will cover Palm Sunday on April 5 and Easter on April 12. One church, St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Lawrenceville, is doing drive-thru confessions.

The pandemic has also forced the cancellation of popular sunrise Easter services at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, which drew hundreds. Kennesaw Mountain has closed all trails, parking lots, buildings and facilities until further notice.

Another event, the annual Sunrise Easter Service at Stone Mountain Park is also canceled.

“Obviously, this year, we’re doing Easter from home,” said the Rev. Kevin Myers, senior pastor at 12Stone Church, which has eight campuses throughout metro Atlanta. The church, which has an average in-person Sunday attendance of nearly 16,000 total for all of its locations, will have worship online as well as a virtual family devotion every night at 7 p.m. from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. The church is getting more than 30,000 people watching online each weekend.

On Easter, he will turn to Luke 23, and tie the crucifixion of Jesus and the two thieves on the cross to the world “we are living in right now,” he said. “Things are not working out the way we hope, but that doesn’t mean things won’t work out for the better. I’m going to bring all of what Jesus did on the cross and what Easter means today.”

For Easter, 12Stone Church has prerecorded musicians and vocalists that will be interspersed through the service while Myers delivers the Easter message. At the same time, the church has prerecorded Easter experiences for preschool to preteens that will play simultaneously while the main service is being livestreamed. Parents can watch the main service on television, while children watch the youth experience on other devices.

Michael Youssef, founder of the Church of the Apostles in Atlanta and noted author, already has a vibrant global broadcast ministry.

Although the congregation won’t be there physically, “it’s going to be a huge celebration and a joyous celebration in the homes,” he said.

Youssef referred back to the time when Jesus was crucified. When he appeared after the Resurrection, “it wasn’t to a huge group. That first Sunday after Resurrection, he appeared in their midst supernaturally. There were perhaps 15 people in the room. It was a very small congregation. He comes in and says, ‘Peace I give you.’ I believe in today’s historically unprecedented times when people are huddled in their homes out of fear, out of anxiety and out of stress, Resurrection Sunday comes and what does it remind you of? He said, ‘Peace, I give you.’”

Life Church Smyrna’s Senior Pastor Shell Osbon said on Easter, the church will hold three services with members and visitors invited to park their cars on the church’s property and tune in to services via radio. Attendees are asked not to leave their cars and to give through the mobile app. or online. Members of the worship team stand six feet apart, in accordance with social distancing guidelines, as do the small staff who are helping with the service.

The church building is closed during the service.

Osbon and his wife, Missy, stand on a flatbed trailer during the service.

“We call it church with social distancing in mind,” said Osbon, who said he has been in close contact with local and state officials. “We’re making certain that everything is in compliance. 

“We wanted to offer a church service that has more of a personalized feeling than just watching on your mobile device or television,” he said. “You can enjoy the service from the comfort and safety of your vehicle. There’s a connection there and connection is a huge part of our faith. “

Each year, Lads 2 Leaders, a Christian-based nonprofit in MontgomeryAlabama, that prepares young people for church leadership and provides religious education, brings about 4,000 people to Atlanta over the Easter weekend. This would have been the 25th year in Atlanta.

This year, officials had to make the difficult decision to cancel the event here and in several other cities, including Orlando, Nashville, Memphis and Louisville.

011115 - DECATUR, GA -- The Holy Bible (left), the Holy Qur'an (center) and Tanakh the Holy Scriptures. Books are Courtesy of Pitts Theology Library of Emory University. File photos
Photo: RENEE' HANNANS/AJC staff

During the year, young people in churches around the nation work on civic projects around their cities. They also spent countless hours memorizing Scripture and giving public speeches.

“This is a major, major problem for us,” said Executive Director Roy Johnson. He said programs, awards and name badges had already been made and ready to hand out. There were concerns about food and staffing. The Atlanta gathering would have included Bible Bowl and speech competitions, puppets and a huge church service on Easter morning at the hotel.

“We were watching and hoping the situation might improve, but with travel restrictions and the fact we need to hold events in big ballrooms, it just cannot happen,” he said. “We didn’t cancel because we wanted to, but it just became an impossibility.”

Now Johnson is looking at the next gathering in 2021.

He plans to call it “The Lost Convention.”

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Audrey Galex, a program content manager at Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters (AIB-TV), looks forward to Passover, a time when Jews observe the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt. The eight days of Passover this year begin at sunset April 8 and last through April 16.

It’s a time when she usually pulls out her Grandma Noni’s cookie recipe. She and her husband bring out the big table from the basement or shed as they get ready for family.

“It’s like huge,” said Galex as she began crying. “This is a time when the kids come home, extended family flies in and very dear friends come and celebrate the Seder meal. This year, nobody can be with us, and we’re trying to figure out what we can do, maybe hang out on Zoom a little bit. This is a touchstone in Jewish life.”

Senior Rabbi Steven Lebow at Temple Kol Emeth in Cobb County plans to livestream the Seder meal from his Marietta home on Thursday. The synagogue’s director of music will do the same from his home.

“This typically shared meal is going to be sorely missed by all Jewish people in Atlanta,” he said. Hopefully, those watching “will have the symbolic food at the home that night and at the very least we can participate in song and prayers with the words on the screen.”

“It’s totally blowing our minds,” Lebow said. “It’s very difficult trying to figure out how to connect with people during a time when people are not really allowed to connect.”

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Health officials say the pandemic is unlikely to be curtailed in Georgia by Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, which will be held this year from the evening of April 23 through the evening of May 23. The month is one of fasting and intended to bring Muslims closer to God and remind them of the suffering of those less fortunate.

“It’s going to be a very difficult time with the social distancing,” said Dr. Naseer A. Humayun, a spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Georgia Chapter, and a member of the Baitul Ata Mosque in Norcross. “During Ramadan, we pray together, we break fast together. At the end of Ramadan, you wear your best clothes, you exchange gifts. It’s such a joyous occasion. I’ve never seen anything like this. Frankly, I didn’t think it would last beyond Ramadan. It’s beyond comprehension.”

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