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From a distance, Anchorage religious leaders adapt their methods and messages for Easter and Passover

David Syzdek carries a large wooden cross during a Good Friday faith walk in downtown Anchorage on April 10, 2020. The event was not organized by Catholic church leadership, and participants were given instructions on social distancing and hygiene before the event started. The group received guidance from Attorney General Kevin Clarkson on how they could hold the walk while still meeting the state requirements for social distancing to limit the spread of Covid-19. Families were limited to 10 people per group, and each group was instructed to walk at least six feet apart. Masks were encouraged to be worn, and hand sanitizer was made available before the start. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

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For many years, Anchorage Catholics have gathered on the morning of Good Friday and walked from their home parishes to Town Square Park, praying the Stations of the Cross and remembering the day Jesus Christ was crucified. This year, with concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, the church-sanctioned event was canceled — but that didn’t stop a small group of the faithful from organizing their own walk.

After receiving a letter from Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson outlining how the walk could be carried out while still abiding by state mandates limiting public gatherings, around 50 people gathered on the Delaney Park Strip to pray. The event began with a reading of the letter from Clarkson and organizers offering participants hand sanitizer and masks. After that, the walk began, with groups of no more than 10 family members each staying 6 feet away from other groups.

Catholic faithful pray during a Good Friday faith walk in downtown Anchorage on April 10, 2020. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Across the city, leaders of churches and synagogues are adapting to celebrate some of their most sacred days in an environment that restricts congregations. Passover began Wednesday. Easter is on Sunday.

Michael Warren, a pastor at ChangePoint, a non-denominational Christian church with 2,900 active adult members, said adjusting to the socially restricted environment in response to the coronavirus pandemic is a work in progress. That started with a goal to reach all ChangePoint members by phone. “(We’re) just making sure everybody was assured, like, ‘Hey, we’re with you in this and we’re going to figure it out as we go because we’ve never done a pandemic before.’”

ChangePoint now broadcasts its services to three digital platforms. Easter week normally means a larger crowd, many of whom bring friends and linger longer to talk. Church leaders hope to host an online environment that can replicate that experience through interactive forums.

“We’re just trying to think, ‘OK, if the opportunities that this week always has presented are the same, how to we leverage our technology in this virtual meeting space to do the same thing?’” Warren said.

He anticipates the impact of the coronavirus pandemic will vary for ChangePoint’s online churchgoers.

“There are people who are going to come to church on Sunday who are grieving because they’re experiencing a loss,” Warren said. “But there are also people that are going to come to church on Sunday because they’re experiencing a new dynamic with their family in their home, and they’re closer to their kids than they’ve ever been because they’re around.”

ChangePoint executive Pastor Scott Merriner prepars for a broadcast for Good Friday service (Scott Spooner photo)

On Thursday evening, Rabbi Abram Goodstein hosted a Passover seder, a traditional feast, from his Anchorage kitchen. The event is normally Congregation Beth Sholom’s largest annual gathering, drawing hundreds.

Goodstein said has learned to appreciate technology in recent weeks. He now uses Zoom and Facebook Live to host study groups and Friday services.

“My comfort level for technology is like, zero. I hate it, and I’m a millennial, so people assume I’m good at it,” he said.

To his surprise, Goodstein has seen his viewership grow to a size much greater than he had typically received in person. He’s also reaching out-of-state viewers online, he said.

“The cool thing about Facebook is that it offers all of these amazing data (items) that I can look at, like who my biggest demographic is,” Goodstein said. “As soon as I was willing to do this, it opened me up to this whole new thing that it never would’ve occurred to me to do until now."

Goodstein asked some Beth Sholom members to submit videos of them leading one of the 15 steps of the seder for his broadcast Wednesday. That’s one way he can engage members differently during the pandemic, he said.

“Passover is a holiday of community, where you’re supposed to get together with your friends and your family and have a fun time, and the COVID-19 is preventing us from doing it,” Goodstein said. “But the positive is that a lot of people who (have) never led before are going to have to lead.”

Congregation Beth Sholom Rabbi Abram Goodstein hosts a Shabbat service from his home’s kitchen on Friday, April 10, 2020. He’s joined by his 3-year-old son, Asher. (Goodstein family photo)

Following state guidelines released earlier this week, Anchorage Baptist Temple plans to host three Easter services in its East Anchorage parking lot Sunday. There, attendees will watch a broadcast of the church service on a 26-foot screen from their vehicles.

That strategy hasn’t been broadly adopted in Anchorage yet, but the Rev. Matt Schultz of Anchorage First Presbyterian church said it sounds interesting. He wanted to learn more about the risks first, he said.

In the meantime, he also has been hosting services from his home.

“It’s very different because there’s no personal feedback. In the sermon, when there’s a congregation present, you can ask a question and they can respond. Or you can look out and notice, ‘Oh, everybody’s falling asleep. I better change this,’” Schultz said. “But in this case, I’m just speaking to the tiny little camera on my laptop and hoping that it’s resonating.”

Rev. Elizabeth Schultz and Rev. Matt Schultz of Anchorage First Presbyterian Church host Palm Sunday worship service from their home on Sunday, April 5, 2020. (Screenshot courtesy Matt Schultz)

Easter, he said, is perhaps the most important day on the Christian calendar and the biggest celebration of the year. Alaska’s challenges with the coronavirus pandemic will temper the celebration this year, he said.

“You can’t have a service that’s going to be saying, ‘Hooray, everything’s great!’ when the obvious fact is there are some significant hardships right now,” he said.

Schultz said he expected to craft a message for his Easter audience that encourages them to look toward other societies in the world who have suffered and endured.

“The question that most people will be arriving on Sunday morning with will be, ‘How do we celebrate the resurrection in a time such as this?’” Schultz said. “And the reminder that I expect to bringing is that somewhere in the world, it is always a time such as this.”

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