Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Editor’s note, this story has been updated with the correct spelling of Steve Smothermon’s name.
Pilgrimages to sacred sites, a sunrise service in a football stadium and packed houses of worship on Easter are traditions in New Mexico during Holy Week, which began Sunday.
But most sanctuaries will be empty this week. The Archdiocese of Santa Fe closed churches for public worship as the first COVID-19 cases were reported in New Mexico. Other churches decided to do the same soon after, as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham discouraged church attendance for fear of spreading the new coronavirus but exempted houses of worship from a state ban on large gatherings.
“This is the first time in all my years of ministry that I haven’t been able to celebrate Easter in person with our people – and that is certainly disappointing – but the church isn’t a ‘place’ it is a people,” said Todd Cook, pastor of Sagebrush Church in Albuquerque.
His church and many others have changed the ways they plan to commemorate the events that took place around the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
That includes the diocese, which decided to cancel pilgrimages to sacred sites, including El Santuario de Chimayó and Tomé Hill. El Santuario de Chimayó will be closed Holy Thursday through Easter Monday, the archdiocese said in a news release. Pilgrims are discouraged from visiting the site, it said.
Because of the closings, the New Mexico Department of Transportation will not provide assistance along the highly traveled routes to the holy sites, a release from NMDOT said.
Home is ‘the holy place’
“In unity with all Christians, we call on the faithful to make home the holy place for the sake of all families during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is imperative we heed the advice of our global scientists, medical and public health experts,” Archbishop of Santa Fe John Wester said. “Stay home. By practicing social distancing, together we can save lives.”
Calvary Church in Albuquerque normally hosts a sunrise service at the University of New Mexico’s football stadium with more than 20,000 attending, chief pastoral officer Nate Heitzig said.
But the state’s ban on large gatherings prompted the church to plan online-only Good Friday services from its amphitheater. It also is hosting drive-in Easter services Sunday at 9 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. in the center parking lot with two large screens and audio on 88.3 FM. There are 1,000 parking spots for the services, and reservations are required. The church bought time on four television networks to broadcast both Good Friday and Easter services.
“It’s hard (not having public services), but we’re being innovative with it,” Heitzig said. “… Not being able to have that (sunrise service), we just had to commit to trying a new way. Churches around the country have been doing drive-in services. We thought, ‘Man, what if we tried to do drive-in services for Easter?’ ”
Heitzig said the church got approval from the Governor’s Office, and the governor praised the idea as innovative in a news conference last week. He said social distancing rules will be in place for the services.
Stages of the Cross
Sagebrush had planned an interactive experience on each of its campuses covering each day of Jesus’ life from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday called Stages of the Cross. Starting on Palm Sunday, the church is now presenting Stages of the Cross each day at noon on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and the church app.
“Overall, Easter is about Jesus and the lengths he went through to die for our sins in order to reconnect us with God,” Cook said. “Nothing is going to stop us, as a church, as a group of people, from celebrating that this year.”
In the NMDOT release, the governor urged churches to avoid large gatherings during Holy Week, even in places of worship.
“We understand this is a terrible hardship for the faithful, but public health is the first and foremost consideration,” the governor said. “And large groups are an enormous public health risk to our communities right now.”
Legacy Church Pastor Steve Smothermon had been critical of the governor’s discouragement of attending services. But church spokesperson Barry Bitzer said services have been online-only the past couple of weeks, and would stay that way again this week, including for Good Friday and Easter Sunday services.
“During this crisis we have stepped up our already robust online presence as we have transitioned to streaming services,” Smothermon said in a statement to the Journal. “Our production team has created an immersive visual experience, that can be enjoyed online, of what Jesus did for our lives.”
‘A new frontier’
Heitzig noted that, “It’s basically like doing church a whole new way. We’re kind of viewing it as two separate churches. We have Calvary, which more or less isn’t operating with services. And then we have Calvary at home, which is in full operation. … It’s all online, all digital. It’s like a new frontier.”
Churches like Sagebrush and Calvary were already streaming services online before the outbreak. Churches in the archdiocese will stream services during Holy Week, but the practice is new for St. George Greek Orthodox Church, according to its pastor, Conan Gill.
“We were looking at doing it on occasion, but now we’re doing it for every service,” he said.
He has a little more time to prepare – Easter is a week later on Orthodox church calendars – and hasn’t firmed up his plans yet.
“Our services are liturgical with an already spelled-out organization of worship,” he said. The online services are limited to him and a chanter.
Gill said he will miss the people who come to decorate the icons and prepare food. He said Easter services and Pascha, feast of the resurrection, are well-attended at his church.
Gill is aware of criticism of churches not holding public services during the coronavirus outbreak, but he said churches have closed historically during times of sickness. He said that was the case with Greek and Russian Orthodox churches through various times of plague, including one that killed priests and members of the church alike in Russia in the 1700s.
Planting a cross
Billie Avery, 81, and her husband Montie, 80, who attend Calvary Chapel in Rio Rancho, are among residents who are complying with stay-at-home orders and won’t attend Holy Week services. But they have found another way to observe the week and are encouraging their neighbors to do the same.
They have put a cross in their yard and want others to do the same between Palm Sunday and Easter.
“We’re asking our neighbors to spread the Cross, not the virus,” she said. “… This is the first time in my lifetime that I haven’t been able to participate in any of the activities because we’re all closed in for social distancing. This idea popped in my head that I would be doing something.”
Coronavirus forces novel approach to Easter services