Rebirth, the central theme of Easter, will be played out time and time again tonight and Sunday as area Christians celebrate this holy season with baptisms, spiritual rededication, neighborly love and thanksgiving.
"Easter is the center of our faith," said the Rev. Patricia Large, who will be performing an infant baptism Easter morning at St. Andrew's Lutheran Church, 1901 62nd Ave. S. "The theme is resurrection and that we never really die, not because of what we have done but because of what has been done for us."
In keeping with the season's theme of renewal, 3-year-old Katherine Jean Hollands, a preschooler at Grace Lutheran School, will be baptized tonight, joining countless children and adults around the world who will take part in the rite this Easter.
"It is the premium time for baptisms," said the Rev. Barry Howe, dean of the Cathedral of St. Peter, where Katherine will be baptized during this evening's Easter Vigil.
"Baptism is death to the old life and being raised to new life in Christ. Of course, Easter is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter day in the early church was the only time that baptisms were even held until the church began to grow."
Katherine's baptism will be celebrated by family and friends, some of whom were expected to travel from Chicago and Rochester, N.Y. The child's parents, St. Petersburg residents Christopher and Vonnah Hollands, have talked to her about the ceremony.
"Katherine is very excited about it," her mother said. "She knows that she is being baptized, and she knows that it is special."
Apart from Katherine's baptism, the Easter eve service also will be significant to the family because Vonnah Hollands will take her confirmation vows. A former Methodist, she has spent the past few months in spiritual preparation for tonight's ceremony.
"It has been a period of personal growth for me," she said. "The reason I began my spiritual journey was to help Katherine, but she really helped me in the sense that what started out to be a class about the Episcopal church ended up being a spiritual experience."
Christopher Hollands said that his daughter's baptism, which in effect places her fully in God's hands, gives him a "spiritual and philosophical lightening."
And, he added, having the rite performed at Easter is of profound significance.
"The Easter season has a special family connection with my mother. She was born near Easter and she died near Easter," he said.
"In my life, there is a line a continuity through this season. It is not a simple continuity. It involves life and death and all the meaning of humanity as I know it. The whole resurrection theme is a lovely metaphor for life. To be able to send my child Katherine on her Christian journey at this special season really adds a gear to the continuum of life and death and the whole Easter story to me."
Easter Sunday will end a three-month exchange program between two local churches, one predominantly African-American and the other predominantly white, but newly formed relationships seem poised to develop beyond the embryonic stage.
"We have formed friendships that will continue," said Anne Sweazey, who has attended Trinity Presbyterian Church, 2830 22nd Ave. S, for the past three months.
"From this experience of sitting down together on Sunday mornings and worshiping together has come new understanding and new appreciation for each other."
On Sunday, Sweazey, who marched in this year's Martin Luther King Jr. parade with her adopted church family and sang in the choir, will speak of her experiences.
"I am going to thank them for their warm welcome to me," said the professional fund raiser and amateur musician, whose home congregation is First Presbyterian Church, 701 Beach Drive NE.
"There was inevitably some shyness when I first started going to Trinity, but it happened over and over again that when someone would smile or say, "How was your week?' those imaginary barriers would melt away."
Sweazey, who moved to St. Petersburg with her husband, Ken Bagot, a year ago, added: "We have really been accepted as members of Trinity. It's been soul expanding. It has been fun."
Those are the results Leo L. Nussbaum, coordinator of faculty for the Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College and a member of First Presbyterian Church, had sought. He and the Rev. Fred Terry of Trinity Presbyterian had talked for more than a year about arranging an exchange program between the two congregations, said Nussbaum. Last fall's disturbances added a sense of urgency to the idea, which came to fruition in January.
Terry also is pleased with the program's outcome.
"Here are two congregations of the same faith group approximately 2 miles apart and we had never worshiped together," he said. "I think this has enhanced the Christian perspective and shown what the love of God is all about."
That the exchange will conclude on Easter Sunday is just a coincidence, Nussbaum said.
"When we noticed that, we thought, how fitting," he said. "Our assumption is that this is the beginning of building bridges and establishing closer relationships individually, family-wise and church-wise."
A New Church
For the Richards family of Lakewood Estates, Easter will be much more than smart clothes and colorful baskets stuffed with chocolate eggs.
In keeping with the Easter spirit of renewal, the entire family, parents Johnny Jr. and Natalie, and children Johnny, 9, Tristan, 7, Nathalia, 5, Donya, 18 months, and Demerest, 3 months, tonight will be welcomed into the Roman Catholic church.
"Basically, it is like a whole new beginning, like being reborn again, cleansed of all my sins," Johnny Richards Jr. said of his spiritual rebirth.
Last fall the U.S. Navy recruiter and his wife began a spiritual journey, known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, during which they joined others for prayer and classes covering scripture and church teachings.
"We try to form a little faith community of those who are coming into the faith and are taking the journey together," said the Rev. Arthur Proulx, pastor of St. Joseph's Catholic Church, 2025 22nd Ave. S, where the Richards worship.
During tonight's Easter Vigil service, some candidates will be baptized, and all will be confirmed. For the first time, many will receive the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
For Natalie Richards, this evening's ceremony will mark a return to the faith of her childhood. Born in Trinidad, the 31-year-old mother drifted away from the Catholic church, attending Baptist and A.M.E. churches before deciding, with her husband, to settle on one denomination for the children's sake.
"We are really happy about the Catholic church," she said. "The family is getting real close doing this together."
Tonight her husband will be baptized. On Easter Sunday, the couple will renew their marriage vows in the same church where they renewed their faith. This will be an Easter season, said Johnny Richards Sr., that he always will cherish.
A New Building
For many Christians, Easter may mean an outdoor service by the light of the rising sun or indoor worship surrounded by lavish floral arrangements. But for members of Union Missionary Baptist Church, the day that commemorates Christ's resurrection also will be an occasion to give thanks for the very building in which they worship.
It is true that the floors are bare and permanent pews await carpeting. It also is true that the air is cooled by a noisy industrial fan rather than the quiet hum of air conditioning.
But after struggling for more than two years to build their own church, members are not complaining about being able to celebrate Easter in the modest, new building at 1100 49th St. S. They remember quite well that at Christmas, rooms had to be rented in a nearby warehouse and that outdoor worship often was a necessity rather than a fancy.
"It has been an exercise in faith," said the Rev. Jerry Alexander Sr., who became the tiny congregation's pastor in 1993. "But it has been a great experience for the people. We are just grateful that the Lord has blessed us in many ways. We would not be here if it was not for the people who have been helping us."
Countless volunteers including businesses and the carpenter team from North East Park Baptist Church, 3737 First St. NE, have helped build the church. Some contractors have done free work. Others have sold material at cost and accepted small, regular payments.
"It has been heartwarming and encouraging to see the people who have been willing to come forward and help," said Alexander, adding that he also is proud of his congregation. Average attendance is only about 30 to 35 members, many of whom are children, he said.
Members of the 12-year-old church that spent its early years in rented space and the last two trying to create a home of its own, remain optimistic.
"Easter symbolizes a new beginning," said Alexander. There is no place like home and being in your own place to celebrate Easter. Ironically, probably next year, we will have a sunrise service outside."