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[From the scene] Virus spurs churches to find new ways to celebrate Easter

Several churches hold on-site services to mark important day on Christian calendar

April 12, 2020 - 17:21 By Song Seung-hyun
Worshippers attend Easter service on Sunday at Saemoonan Presbyterian Church in central Seoul. (Song Seung-hyun/The Korea Herald)

As the highly contagious COVID-19 continues its firm grip on the country, Christian churches found creative ways to celebrate Easter, considered a time of renewal and rebirth by the faithful.

While some Protestant megachurches held their Easter services online, others convened offline to mark the special day on the Christian calendar.

Saemoonan Presbyterian Church in Jongno-gu, Seoul, the oldest Presbyterian church in the country, was one of those churches that held Easter services both online and offline Sunday.

Saemoonan had held all its services online since March 1.

On Easter Sunday, the church held three offline services, allowing up to 300 people to sign up in advance for each service. “We decided to accept 300 people, taking into consideration the church space and the 2-meter distance guideline,” Kim Hyun-joo, an elder at the church, told The Korea Herald on Sunday.

However, attendance this Sunday was much lower than expected.

“Around 100 people actually signed up and appeared for each service,” a Saemoonan Presbyterian Church official said. Around 5,000 people regularly attend the church, according to the official.

On Sunday, several police officers stood near the main entrance, the only entrance to the church that was open, to check whether the church was properly following the government guidelines. Everyone entering the building was required to go through a machine that sprayed sanitizing steam. They then had their temperatures checked. Once inside, church staff asked members to use hand sanitizer and fill in a form, providing personal information such as name, phone number and signature.

The service was held on the fourth floor. “We only allow three people to get on one elevator to go up,” the church official said.

The staff exercised strict control inside the worship space, guiding each person to their seat. The staff had marked each seat with a sticker in advance, and churchgoers were seated 2 meters apart.

All members of the congregation wore masks throughout the entire service, as did the Rev. Lee Sang-hak, who removed it only to deliver his sermon.

Although the five choir members did not wear masks when singing in front of the congregation, they immediately put them on upon returning to their seats. The stage and the first pew were more than 2 meters apart.

In his sermon, Rev. Lee tried to comfort members experiencing difficulties being faithful due to the coronavirus spread.

“Today is a special day, but you must be exhausted. Wearing masks while worshiping and praising. I am sure nobody is doing great,” Rev. Lee said. Pointing out that the Church has overcome numerous difficulties over the last 2,000 years, Rev. Lee said it would also come through the current pandemic.

Immediately after the service, a crew hired by the church began sanitizing the space and the members exited through a separate door.

At 3 p.m., Saemoonan Presbyterian Church hosted a special service organized by the United Christian Churches of Korea to mark Easter, with only the officials of the organization attending. The service was made available as well.

The special Easter service held annually is usually attended by thousands of worshippers. This year, the service was originally scheduled to take place at Saemoonan Presbyterian Church, to be followed by a first ever Easter parade in Gwanghwamun. That parade has been tentatively rescheduled for May. 

Over 200 cars are parked for Onnuri Church‘s drive-in Easter service. (Lim Jang-won/The Korea Herald)

Drive-in worship

Over 200 cars filled the parking lot in Yangjae-dong as Onnuri Church started its Easter Sunday drive-in worship. Cars honking in unison replaced the usual clapping before the sermon.

Members of Onnuri Church who had registered their cars on the church website drove in one by one, as church staff held up signs telling them to tune in to 88.5 MHz. A total of 220 cars were allowed to register for each of the five services. The most popular services, at 9 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., were completely filled.

“Our head pastor has been thinking about drive-in worship for a while, and as the parking lot situation and our church situation allowed this to happen, we decided to not wait any longer and start with the Easter service,” the Rev. Shin Dong-sik of Onnuri Church told The Korea Herald. “This is the first drive-in worship so we took in less than the maximum capacity of 230 cars as a safety measure. As we hold services today, I think we can fit in more cars, so adjustments can be made. The best part about drive-in service is that everyone is isolated in their cars,” he said.

“Worshipping together is more precious. I think a day like Easter is very special, and I was touched by being provided with this kind of service,” said Cho Hyun-ok, who attended the service. Onnuri Church suspended all on-site services on Feb. 25.

Many cars held entire families. Staff members on bicycles rode between the cars, handing out Easter gifts such as Easter eggs, juice, tissues and potted plants to preregistered families with children.

“I couldn’t concentrate on the online services at home. I didn’t wash and dress up for church like I used to. If something came up at home, I would be distracted,” said one father who drove in with his family of four. “I am very glad this is happening. I was getting frustrated not being able to go church,” he said.

Cars were parked at a safe distance, with one parking space left vacant between cars, and people were required to wear masks upon getting out. There was also strict temperature monitoring for the staff and reporters on the scene. The church will continue to hold drive-in worship services until the pandemic is over.

Meanwhile, most of the country’s Roman Catholic churches held Easter Mass online, with a number of smaller churches outside major cities celebrating Mass on-site.

By Song Seung-hyun, Lim Jang-won 
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