Full houses on Easter Sunday
Easter came early this year, and with it came hope for many of Block Island’s residents. Hope for a return to some sort of normalcy, as many people finally had a holiday with extended family. Hope that the cool temperatures are behind us and short pants are in our future. Hope that the sweet sounds of a thousand songbirds will continue to greet us each day. Hope that the water pipes we drained ourselves didn’t freeze and burst over the winter.
And for the various faith communities on the island, Easter brought the hope of a return to normalcy in the form of active in-person worship. Though the various churches and faith communities on the island have been allowed to have in-person worship, many church members have elected to stay home and participate virtually. Many churches have offered online streaming of their various liturgies, and the faithful have faithfully watched and worshiped from home. But nearly everyone in ministry has hoped for the return of well attended church services.
And there has been concern among some in the various church hierarchies that people may choose not to come back.
Just in time for Easter, Gallup released their findings on church membership in the U.S., and it was not encouraging for the clergy. In 2020, 47 percent of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque, down from 50 percent in 2018, and 70 percent in 1999. Church membership had been steady at 70 percent, up until the turn of
the 21st century, when it began a steady decline.
There are a great many reasons for this downward turn, but every religious leader will tell you that the pandemic era of church ministry is not helping. It is hard to connect with people when you only see them through a computer screen. It’s hard for the person who does attend a service to be fully engaged when they are encouraged not to sing. It’s hard to form a sense of community when you aren’t able to have any community-building get-togethers. It’s hard to tell if your jokes in the sermon are landing when you can’t see any smiles behind the masks. You have to rely on chuckles and guffahs, and lots of folks don’t know they can laugh in church.
The lived experience of the religious leaders, coupled with the hard data from the Gallup poll, left at least one pastor, Father Joseph Protano of Saint Andrew Catholic Church, wondering if there would even be anyone at the service on Easter morning. The Easter morning service had traditionally been held in the big church on Chapel Street, the first Sunday back in town after a winter spent in the small chapel on Spring Street. But this year he questioned if they would even need the extra space. Light attendance at the services leading up to Easter morning only seemed to confirm what had long been suspected: the pandemic had driven the nails into the coffin of the institutional church, and it may never recover.
But then Easter morning broke on Block Island, bright and beautiful. The sun was shining and the birds were singing. And when Fr. Protano began the Easter celebration in the big church on Chapel Street, he saw to his amazement that the place was full, as full as it could be with social distancing protocols in place. He called it the biggest crowd he had seen in well over a year.
Pastor Peter Preiser of Harbor Church confirmed that he too had a robust crowd for Easter. Rev. Eletha Boute-Greig’s congregation at Saint Ann’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church also experienced an uptick in attendance for their drive-in and live-streamed service. Despite the lower attendance numbers for the previous pandemic-stricken months, and despite the empirical evidence reported by Gallup, Easter on Block Island was a very well-attended affair. It was quite nearly a revival by comparison to the
Could this be the new season of hope for the weary faithdul? Could this be the moment when it all turns around, with the various vaccines leading us to triumph over the pandemic era of hopelessness? Could this be the season when the tide of indifference and apathy begins to turn and the American people make a return to the “glory days” of 70 percent religious affiliation? Could this be the sign of hope the religious leaders of Block Island so desperately want it to be?
One of the wisest of all church sages had a different take on the situation at the conclusion of the Easter service at St. Andrew’s: the tourists have arrived to the island. The out-of-state plates in the parking lot seemed to back her up. Sometimes, if you want to know what’s actually going on, you have to ask the lady who knows.
Either way, as Fr. Protano told the congregation: “Seeing this full church, for the first time in well over a year, warms an old pastor’s heart.”
Here’s to hoping that warm hearts and vibrant faith community services become normal once again.