In the New York City borough of Queens, Safe Haven United Church of Christ has three Mothers of the Church: one in her 70s, one in her 80s and one who turned 95 on Easter weekend. All of them took part in Safe Haven’s Easter service via the webinar platform Zoom, which replicated, as much as possible, the joy of in-person worship.
Members alternated singing lines of songs and reading scriptures. Prayers were lifted. The Rev. Ruby Wilson, pastor, gave a sermon.
The congregation's leaders are grateful that, despite the peaking epidemic in the city – where the number of COVID-19 deaths had risen to 7,349 by the end of Easter Sunday – they have been able to stay well connected since suspending in-person worship in March. "Because we put into place constant communication with members, by both our ministers and our deacons, no members were left alone," said Deacon Jane Joseph.
That included the oldest Mother of the Church. Safe Haven bought a tablet for her so she could join in worship and prayer meetings online. Her daughter helped her connect. It was a hit. By Easter, the Mother with the tablet was well acclimated to Zoom. In fact, after experiencing her first Zoom worship several weeks earlier, she was one of several members who stayed online after worship just to talk – for three hours.
Wilson said Safe Haven has taken remote church in stride partly because being the church, without being in a building, is nothing new. Founded as Safe Haven Ministries in 1995, it became affiliated with the UCC in 2002, and took ownership of the former St. Mark’s UCC building in 2018 after sharing space there since 2003.
In its early years, Safe Haven met in deacons' homes or shared spaces – including one where "we had to set up, have the service, dismantle everything and get out, because the next group was coming in," she said. "We'd always have meetings and rehearsals in different places – prayers and Bible study. That's been the nature of Safe Haven for most of our existence." Its outreach ministries, too, emphasized contribution to like-minded community ministries, as well as helping people discover their gifts and sending them out into the world.
Along with keeping joy alive, though, Safe Haven's members are keenly conscious of the moment, Wilson said. The city had thousands of COVID-19 deaths during Holy Week; a temporary mass grave was now in use on an island off the neighboring borough of The Bronx. "Watching these Holy Week events unfold in the Bible, you see it gets dimmer and dimmer and darker and grimmer," Wilson said, "and it seems like that’s where we are in this pandemic – more cases than we thought, more deaths than we thought, not enough ventilators. All good news is spoken cautiously."
"It has made me look at Jesus' last night in a whole different way," Wilson said, as she prepared for Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday. "Sitting there in a room with your closest people – inside a room together and having a meal. Having this meal with these overtones and undertones undergirding the entire meeting: This could be it. We don’t know who it will be next. It could be one of us."
For Easter, she asked people to focus on Jesus' empty tomb. "It's empty," she said. "What does it mean? I want people to be empowered by the fact that we are a resurrection people, even when you know you’re in the midst of the unknown."
This is one of four profiles of how local congregations of the United Church of Christ approached the unusual Holy Week and Easter of 2020. To see the rest – as well as the gifts each of them has found in moving services and meetings online – see this main article.