Across the UCC
Written by Carol L. Pavlik
March 1, 2002
In the Easter morning darkness, UCC members make their way to special spots to catch the sun's first rays and proclaim Christ's resurrection.
In Cleveland, members and friends of West Park UCC board the Nautica Queen to cruise out onto Lake Erie, then glimpse the Easter sunrise slanting into the boat's cabin from beneath one of the many bridges on the Cuyahoga River.
As Cleveland's Nautica Queen cruises down the Cuyahoga River, West Park UCC deacon William Barry prepares for worship. W. Evan Golder photo.
"I think of new life whenever there's a new day," says the Rev. Larry Craig, pastor of West Park UCC. "The sun rises and things become alive. It reminds us of the new life God blesses us with."
Gliding down the Ohio River on Easter morning had become a favorite family tradition for Craig back in 1979 when he chartered a stern-wheeler for the first of many annual Easter sunrise services at the church he was serving in Belpre, Ohio. But when Craig moved on to a church in Pennsylvania, the tradition stopped for lack of the necessary resources.
"I ran out of rivers, and I ran out of boats!" says Craig, who happily introduced the tradition a few years ago to the West Park congregation.
Hoping to attract more early birds to sunrise services, the Nautica Queen was just what the doctor ordered. Before the Nautica Queen, Craig says the sunrise service was sparsely attended in comparison to the traditional 10:30 a.m. worship.
Now, more than 150 people show up bright at early at the dock to board the Nautica Queen and share music and communion, followed by a continental breakfast overlooking the beautiful scenery.
Craig notes that the boat's cabin is glassed-in and heated, making the service a delight even during inclement weather. And the surroundings lend themselves to reminders of the mystery and miracle of Easter day.
Craig says, "I talk about the trees, the blooming flowers. We look at the breakwall and we see the stone, reminding us of the stone that covered Christ's tomb.
"To be out, to see the sunrise takes us back to the biblical texts where the women went to the grave of Jesus early on Easter day."
Easter sunrise in Maine means inlets, harbors and riverbanks
Churches across Maine face east at sunrise on Easter morning to take in the breathtaking view of the sun rising over rivers or the ocean at countless inlets, harbors and riverbanks.
Worshipers from Phippsburg (Maine) Congregational UCC head to the nearby banks of the Kennebec River in darkness to watch the sun creep over the hill during worship.
In Machiasport, Maine, a picnic table (often a snow-covered picnic table) in Fort O'Brien State Park serves as a makeshift altar for early morning music and communion for members and friends of Center Street UCC.
The Rev. Mark Wilson of Phippsburg says the thought of braving the weather on a spring morning in Maine can be radical at times, so the almanac is always close at hand.
But even when the weather doesn't cooperate, Wilson knows his faithful "sunrisers" will be there. "We all know there are ‘Christmas and Easter people,'" he says with a laugh. "The curious thing is that there are "Easter sunrise people," too. There are folks who would not think of coming at 10 o'clock with a fancy hat. But Easter sunrise seems to touch them."
Members gather in dark to hear earth awaken
"There's something about a sunrise service," says the Rev. Mark Johnson. "It really bothers me when the sun has already risen by the time you get there."
That means worshipers at Hummelstown (Pa.) UCC have to get up extra early to witness the sun coming up over their outdoor service held just outside the church building. One year, a mixup with Daylight Savings Time found early risers waiting and waiting and waiting for the sunrise. "We were an hour early," says Johnson with a laugh. "But that's OK. At least we didn't miss it."
While the sun rises and filters through the trees, the small group of people gathered for worship prays and meditates. Some renew baptismal vows, restating their commitment to follow the path of Christ. Johnson says his favorite dimension of the outdoor service is the sound of the world awakening to a new day. "You can hear the birds, the wind blowing through the trees," he says, adding that nature sometimes gives way to the sounds of cars, or someone cranking up their truck for an early-morning trip to work or the donut shop.
And without fail, Johnson says, the sound of a train rushing by reminds him of how the past-paced, ever-changing world around us still needs the hope and promise inspired by that first Easter morning.
Graveyard service reminds churches of Easter's meaning
Maybe it's not the traditional uplifting, lily-clad image most people prefer on Easter morning, but each year, an ecumenical group of folks from Baltimore, Md., don Easter garb and head to the local cemetery to worship, sing and proclaim, "Christ is Risen!"
The Rev. Johnny C. Carrington of Bethany UCC in Baltimore says that he believes being in a graveyard is a solid reminder of the promise Easter morning holds for all of us.
Being among gravestones touches the pulse of what Easter morning means for believers, says Carrington.
After all, he adds, what could be more meaningful than being in a place just like the first Easter morning, where the stone in front of Christ's tomb was rolled away?
"Jesus rose on the third day from the grave, just like he said he would," says Carrington.
"We still believe in the hope that though [the dead] sleep, one day all these graves will give them up and they will come alive again," he adds.
Beach service keeps tradition
Ormond Beach (Fla.) Union UCC holds a beachside Easter sunrise service that is part of a legacy than began in the days when oil tycoon and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller vacationed in Ormond Beach and attended services at Union Church. At the time, the building housed several mainline Protestant churches under one roof.
Union Church held the first sunrise service in that part of Florida right on the white sand of Ormond Beach. The tradition has stayed alive some 80 years.
"Even though some of the folks who come aren't members, the connection is still there," says the Rev. Charles D. Melvin, describing the 1,600 participants in the service. Families bring blankets to sit on, vacationers stop by wearing shorts and sandals, and the service goes from contemporary to traditional and back again as each year passes.
"Some years we have guitars, drums and tambourines," says Melvin. "Other years we use traditional church hymns played on a keyboard in organ mode."
The changing style and feel of the service is part of its widespread appeal, says Melvin. "It's kind of the ‘in' thing around here," he adds with a smile. "It's where you want to go on Easter morning."
Church welcomes Easter in its kiva
Church of the Good Shepherd UCC in Albuquerque, N.M., celebrates Easter morning in its outdoor kiva, modeled after a traditional Pueblo religious center. The kiva—a round, open, adobe-style structure—has concrete floors with a fire pit in the center, and "bancos" (built-in seats) around the inside perimeter.
Historically, Pueblo people of the Southwest gathered in kivas for religious ceremonies.
The kiva can be a powerful place, says Joyce Mitchell, church secretary, especially on Easter, as the morning sun reflects off the nearby Sandia Mountains.
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