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York County's faithful celebrate Easter, Passover under shadow of coronavirus

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

Religious leaders in York County are facing the unprecedented challenge this week of leading their flocks through the pain of social isolation during holidays that would normally be cause for joyful gatherings.

For Christians, that holiday is Easter, and for Jews, that holiday is Passover.

"Our church and ministry, the way we serve, is completely turned upside down," said the Rev. Bill Schutt of Bible Baptist Church in Conewago Township.

Schutt said he hasn't been able to visit parishioners in their homes or in the hospital, and his congregation of 700 to 800 people hasn't been able to gather for worship services as they normally would.

But instead of canceling services or switching to an all-digital format, Schutt and his staff have adapted in other ways.

Each Sunday they hold "drive-in" services. Congregants park their cars in the church parking lot, keeping 6 feet between one another, and remain in their cars for the service.

The services are broadcast outside with a speaker system, and for those who can't drive to the service, or who prefer to keep their car windows closed, there's a conference call system to hear the service over the phone. Call-in information is available on the church website.

The church even installed an FM radio transmitter so attendees can tune in on their car radios.

Schutt said he's encouraging his parishioners to remain at home to pray with their families on Good Friday, which is traditionally recognized as the day Jesus Christ was crucified by the Romans.

And on Easter Sunday, traditionally recognized as the day of Jesus Christ's resurrection, Bible Baptist Church will host two drive-in services: a resurrection service at 10:45 a.m and a celebration service at 4 p.m.

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Even though church members have to keep their distance from one another during the drive-in services, gathering to pray together is a great source of comfort, Schutt said.

"They have been comforted to be able to see other people and to see their friends, loved ones (and) church family are doing well," he said.

Other large protestant churches, such as Living Word Community Church in York Township and LCBC York in Springettsbury Township, are streaming all of their Easter weekend services online.

Gov. Tom Wolf included religious institutions in his list of essential and life-sustaining businesses, so churches and other organizations are not forbidden from holding in-person services.

But Wolf did ask religious leaders to use good judgment and exercise caution, and some have voluntarily canceled in-person services to abide by the state and federal social distancing guidelines in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

As of Wednesday, there were 16,239 cases in Pennsylvania and 309 deaths attributed to the virus, including two in York County, according to the state Department of Health.

St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church is shown in Dallastown, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020.Dawn J. Sagert photo

Missing communion: For Roman Catholics, one of the most difficult aspects of social distancing is not being able to partake of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, said Bishop Ronald Gainer of the Diocese of Harrisburg.

"We’re used to fasting before we receive Holy Communion, but we’re not used to fasting from Holy Communion...People feel spiritually deprived because of that," he said.

Separation from the wider church family has also been trying for church members, Gainer said, but parishioners have responded enthusiastically to the availability of digital services.

During the recent Palm Sunday service at the Cathedral Parish of Saint Patrick in Harrisburg, there were 1,800 people watching the livestream, Gainer said, which exceeded the number that would have fit inside the cathedral.

Within 24 hours, the video had more than 13,000 views, he said.

"I think the participation of the faithful has been extraordinary, and well beyond what I would have imagined," Gainer said.

Remote Passover: Increased participation in services has not been limited to Christian churches.

Rabbi Jeffrey Astrachan from Temple Beth Israel in York Township said there have been about 100 people tuning in to Shabbat services via Zoom video conferencing on Friday nights, a "substantial uptick" from the usual numbers, he said.

Passover is a Jewish holiday commemorating the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, where they were slaves, according to Jewish tradition.

It's an eight-day festival (this year running April 8–16) traditionally celebrated in large family gatherings with a ritual meal called a Seder.

In a normal year, about 150 people from the Temple Beth Israel congregation gather for the Seder, Astrachan said, but this year, congregants will have small celebrations in their own homes.

Astrachan said he's been thinking about a line from the Haggadah, the traditional retelling of the Exodus story, that says, "Next year, may all be free," referring to the bondage and slavery the Israelites experienced before leaving Egypt.

"As Passover itself is filled with symbolism, we think about how beautiful it will be next year for us to truly be free to be back together as a community, the way we’re supposed to observe this," Astrachan said.

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