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‘People are longing for the gathering’: Virtual Easter services take shape across Howard County

This Sunday, the Rev. Hector Mateus-Ariza will turn to the camera set up in Resurrection of Our Lord in Laurel. He’ll wait for the light to start flashing and begin by welcoming his parishioners to Easter Mass.

This year, though, his pews won’t be packed. He’ll be speaking to an empty church, hoping the message echoes through the internet.

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“It’s kind of strange; it’s new for me, too. It’s weird for me to talk to the camera and not to people,” said Mateus-Ariza, 48. “It’s not easy especially when you don’t have the talent for the camera. I get intimidated.”

It’s been a few weeks since Mateus-Ariza, a Laurel resident, started giving Mass virtually through Facebook and YouTube, and surrounded by fewer than 10 people. It’s not the way services have been given for hundreds of years, but it’s the new normal in the era of the coronavirus pandemic.

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On Easter Sunday, Mateus-Ariza will give back-to-back Masses in English and Spanish to accommodate his multilingual parish. He’ll reach his hands out and hope his parishioners can feel his words through their phones and computers.

Across the county, the Rev. Ann Ritonia will be going live at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City. If the online crowd is anything like services from years past, Ritonia will be speaking to more than 1,800 worshipers through YouTube.

“There’s a performative element to it. It’s ritual, it’s movement,” said Ritonia, 62, of Ellicott City. “I think it’s more authentic when it’s live. We can make mistakes that everyone sees; it shows our humanity as well.”

A few miles away, Pastor Mitchel Lee of Grace Community Church will be sitting with his wife and five children on their couch in Ellicott City, watching Easter services on the family TV.

For Lee, 44, the hour he spends attending virtual church will be “strange,” he said, because he’ll be watching himself give the service.

“We couldn’t just take our regular service and put it online,” Lee said. “[There’s a difference between] what’s the right feel for the services, what’s the right length for a service, what’s right for a home versus what’s right for when you’re coming into a huge auditorium.”

Last year’s Easter services brought between 6,000 and 7,000 members to Grace Community in Fulton. This year those members will be watching the video of services Lee filmed as the sun rose Wednesday morning outside his church.

“Even more than the content of the actual gathering, people are longing for the gathering, just being side by side. We miss that, gosh, we really miss that,” he said.

Lee has been putting his services on the church’s website, YouTube and Facebook since March 15, giving his members the flexibility to “go to church” whenever they get the chance throughout the week.

For older congregations like Mount Gregory United Methodist Church in Cooksville, moving away from in-person gatherings means picking up the phone to conference in, said the Rev. Lorraine Brown.

“It’s been a time of fellowship for us all, even though we aren’t together. Being able to hear each other’s voices has brought us together,” said Brown, 66.

Brown, a Gaithersburg resident, has set up a meeting on the Zoom online conference platform and a phone line for the 35 members at Mount Gregory and her nearly 20 members at Simpson Methodist in Mount Airy, the other church she presides over.

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There were some technical difficulties getting everyone on the same line initially, but on Sunday the churches will have their members call into Easter services that Brown will preside over.

Creating a virtual church has been a life-changing experience for Ritonia, and she acknowledged the resources she has to make that possible won’t be available to all churches for Easter Sunday.

“It costs money to use technology in a good way. For churches with struggling budgets and finances, you don’t have all the fancy technology,” she said. “But I’m seeing people using their phones in really cool ways.”

A fellow pastor and friend of Ritonia’s can’t use her church building for her virtual Easter services. Instead, the friend set up an altar in her basement and will be presenting live from there this Sunday.

“This year is probably closer to how the disciples experienced Easter. They were in their homes, isolated and alone,” Ritonia said. “They experienced the feeling we are experiencing; they were alone and cut off from their communities. In some ways, it does make it more authentic for us.”

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