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‘It’s a wonderful thing.’ Harford churches will celebrate Easter in person with COVID precautions

Nearly one year ago, Grove Presbyterian Church in Aberdeen held just a virtual service on Easter, as it and other houses of worship throughout Harford County closed to the public amid the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Last year was totally virtual, with just the pastor [delivering] a sermon,” Carlla Jones, the church’s music director, said Thursday.

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But this year, Grove Presbyterian and other Harford County churches, like St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Bel Air, will have in-person services, which also can be viewed live online, as Christians gather to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his death from crucifixion.

St. Matthew will host two Easter worship services Sunday morning. The church sanctuary has been set up to facilitate social distancing, with signage and areas taped off for those attending regular Sunday services and during Holy Week.

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Grove Presbyterian will host a morning service on Easter Sunday with the organ and a trumpet being played live, accompanied by prerecorded singing by the church choir, and brief homilies delivered by the four lay preachers who currently lead services.

“It’s a wonderful thing for musicians to provide music in a live setting,” said Jones, who noted that she cannot wait until members of the choir also are able to gather and sing “side by side.”

The homilies will be related to the theme of “the day Jesus changed the world,” according to Jones.

“To have people there, gathering in person. ... The fellowship aspect is what we have missed the most,” Jones said.

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The pandemic has not ended, however. People must wear masks and maintain social distancing while worshipping in person on Sunday, according to Jones.

The county’s health officer, Dr. David Bishai, expressed concern earlier this week about the rising positive COVID-19 case rate for Harford, which at 8.9% was the highest in the state at the time. Bishai stressed the importance of continuing to wear a mask, maintaining social distance and people who are healthy and young getting vaccinated.

Church leaders around Harford County are taking measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. St. Margaret Parish in Bel Air is limiting in-person attendance during Easter mass services on Sunday, and parishioners have been required to register in advance — walk-ins will not be allowed, said the Rev. Kevin Schenning in a recent message posted on the parish’s YouTube page.

People must wear masks and stay 6 feet apart during services, plus the sanctuary will be sanitized after each mass. Schenning encouraged parishioners who are sick to stay home and watch services online.

“We always love [to have] you come to church, but we want your safety first, so be aware of that as we go along this Holy Week,” he said in the video.

Mountain Christian Church will hold in-person services at its main campus in Joppa, as well as satellite locations in Abingdon, Edgewood and its newest campus in Aberdeen, where a grand opening will be celebrated Sunday, according to the church Facebook page.

“Every service will follow safety guidelines and will be a safe experience to celebrate Easter!” a message on the page states.

St. Matthew has multiple activities scheduled for Holy Week and Easter, including a Good Friday meditation service featuring piano music from Duke Thompson of the Maryland Conservatory of Music.

The annual egg hunt and other activities, such as the self-guided Journey to the Cross walking tour, are scheduled for Saturday, but participants must register online as attendance is limited.

St. Matthew celebrated Easter in 2020 with an outdoor service held on a platform. People in attendance remained in their vehicles and could hear the music and liturgy on the radio, according to the Rev. Blaise Sedney, the church pastor.

Sedney noted the importance of people being able to worship together, in person, and the value of fellowship, but he also stressed the need to take precautions against COVID-19 such as wearing masks and getting vaccinated.

“But, at least they’re together and get to celebrate the Risen Lord,” he said of members of the congregation.

Up to 50 people have been attending 8 a.m. services on Sundays, and at least 100 — less than half of the pre-pandemic attendance of 260 to 280 — come to 10:15 a.m. services. The sanctuary has been sectioned into thirds, with one third reserved for the 8 a.m. service attendees and the other two for the later service, according to church administrator Julie McDonnell.

She noted that the large sanctuary, which was built in 2005, was not designed with social distancing in mind, but the layout “allows us to be able to put parameters in place to deal with something like this, that was totally unexpected.”

The sanctuary doors also will be propped open so people do not have to touch the surfaces, and prepackaged communion items have been provided to the congregation. Prior to the pandemic, worshippers would connect physically, by shaking hands, embracing or bumping elbows when extending wishes that “peace of the Lord be with you” to each other, but the peace is now extended from the altar to the congregation, according to McDonnell.

“It’s a very strong reminder that God is with us,” McDonnell said. “He is for us — He isn’t meant to cause us harm; He provides peace every day to each of us.”

She stressed that a church is not limited to its physical structure, but it is “a community of believers” that remains together, whether worshipping in person or remotely.

“If you think about it, we are truly blessed to live at this time because technology has allowed everybody to stay connected,” McDonnell said.

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