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Amid coronavirus constraints, Tampa Bay Christians will celebrate Easter differently

Interactive online worship, a parking lot Palm Sunday service and a drive-through Easter egg hunt are some of the ways the faithful are adjusting to social distancing.

Christianity’s holiest week traditionally begins with a joyful waving of palm fronds, continues with solemnity and culminates in triumph at Easter.

But from cathedrals to chapels, this week will be different this year, as the world copes with the crippling conoravirus pandemic. Instead of welcoming crowds of worshipers, most Tampa Bay area churches will become mere backdrops for spiritual leaders and small supporting casts as they deploy technology to sustain and inspire largely invisible congregations.

Related: With coronavirus, religious groups in Tampa Bay use technology to cope

For many, it’s a bittersweet moment, “amazing and devastating all at the same time,” observed the Rev. Daniel J. Lemley of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Clearwater. “Amazing, because we have the technology to stay ‘connected’ and move forward with our worship even though we cannot gather in the same place. Devastating, because Easter is Christianity’s principal feast. Something is definitely lost when we cannot physically gather together and celebrate.”

But, Lemley emphasized, the good news of Easter lives on.

This Palm Sunday, Tampa’s Hyde Park United Methodist Church will debut its new, interactive platform, designed to livestream church services and allow worshipers and church leaders to interact in real time.

With its “Let’s social distance ... together” theme, First Unity Spiritual Campus in St. Petersburg will hold a private Easter sunrise service and livestream it with a recorded message about the meaning of the resurrection, from A Course in Miracles author and former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson.

Related: Pastor of Tampa church that held two large Sunday services arrested, jailed

Some congregations, like the tiny First Presbyterian Church of Lake Alfred, will go low-tech. On Palm Sunday, members will pull their cars into the church parking lot and listen to their pastor, who will use FM transmitters to broadcast his message to their car radios.

Patrice Hatley, coach and coordinator for the Presbytery of Tampa Bay, credits the jurisdiction’s congregations in Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Polk, Hernando, Citrus and Levy counties with “great creativity and ingenuity” for their efforts at working for their members to be together without being in the same place.

On St. Pete Beach, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church will place a wooden cross at the front of its property so people can drive up and decorate it with flowers or greenery between 10 a.m. and noon on Easter Sunday, the Rev. Georgene “Gigi” Conner said.

And there’s a new twist to the Easter egg hunt at St. Paul’s Catholic Church, Monsignor Robert Gibbons said. The St. Petersburg parish usually holds two simultaneous Masses on Easter Sunday, one in the church and the other in the school gymnasium. “After that, we’ve always had this great, big Easter egg hunt for the children on the playground,” Gibbons said.

This year, the congregation will be invited to drive through the parking lot between noon and 1 p.m. so children can be handed their eggs. “It’s to keep a tradition alive and connect the people to the church on Easter,” Gibbons said.

The Palm Sunday Mass will be livestreamed from the Franciscan sisters’ convent chapel and palms will be distributed between noon and 1 p.m. as cars drive through the parking lot. “One thing is, we’ll get to see the parishioners. Everybody is really missing seeing everyone,” Gibbons said of the parish, where Sunday attendance runs about 1,200 to 1,300.

Related: Diocese of St. Petersburg cancels all public Mass celebrations in Tampa Bay

Churches have had to adjust to the coronavirus in numerous ways. At St. Paul’s, that will include donning masks and gloves to hand out palms and Easter eggs. And Bishop Gregory Parkes, head of the area’s almost half-million Catholics, accustomed to celebrating Holy Week and Easter Masses in front of large crowds, will do so for a virtual flock via livestream, TV and radio.

The Rev. Alex Padilla, Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle, St. Petersburg, sets up a device to record and livestream a daily Mass, Friday, March 20, 2020, at Our Lady's Chapel next to the cathedral. Parishioners can also listen to Masses on the radio. Public Masses have been suspended by the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The Rev. Alex Padilla, Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle, St. Petersburg, sets up a device to record and livestream a daily Mass, Friday, March 20, 2020, at Our Lady's Chapel next to the cathedral. Parishioners can also listen to Masses on the radio. Public Masses have been suspended by the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg due to the coronavirus outbreak. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]

Hyde Park United Methodist’s senior pastor Magrey deVega has invited his congregation to do “some pretty cool things” as they observe Holy Week away from their church.

“This season of unsettledness has really sparked creativity and innovation in how to create supportive community and share in the love of Jesus Christ,” deVega said. “We are excited to be offering a full array of Holy Week services, livestreamed and available via our website, hydeparkumc.org. These include regular broadcasts of our Easter services throughout the day, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. ”

The livestreamed services will feature church members leading parts of worship from their homes. On Maundy Thursday, which commemorates Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, the service will include footage of the congregation’s families leading parts of the blessing from their dinner tables. For Good Friday, church members are invited to view the service with seven lit candles, gradually extinguishing them.

The Rev. Temple Hayes of Unity spoke about the difficult decision to call off services, “at a time when people need us more than ever.” She did so only after “deep prayer and reflection,” she said. “Our doors are closed, but our hearts are open and we’ve just created ways that people could connect with us, by phone, livestream, social media.”

For Holy Week and Easter, St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church on St. Petersburg’s Snell Isle will “be stitching together film clips recorded by our various staff to make what we hope will be a reverent worship service,” the Rev. Ryan Whitley said.

"We want to acknowledge the difference of this year in our worship and remind ourselves that the most important part of Easter is not the glorious music or the beautiful flowers or the magnificent hats and Easter egg hunts, but the story of the resurrection that was told by a few scared women to a couple of incredulous blokes,” Whitley said.

“We know that it was meaningful, too, because we’re still talking about it today. This year, more than any other year that I can remember, we are returning to the heart and soul of the Easter story.”

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