Hope rode in on a donkey last week to Honeyville Baptist Church.

Two days ago in Watertown, hope was carried along city streets, as the 24th annual Good Friday Cross Walk was held, after a two-year hiatus, leaving a litany of prayer, scripture and song in its wake.

At Emmanuel Congregational Church in Watertown, hope is percolating once again — the church’s coffee hour has been warmly welcomed back after a two-year break.

More than two years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, the arrival of Benny the Donkey on Palm Sunday to Honeyville Kids Church, chats over coffee and the carrying of the cross in Watertown were small milestones, and blessings, as anxious months passed with hopes and prayers of a return to pre-pandemic normality. This Easter season, with its message of rebirth and resurrection and COVID-19 cases remaining comparatively low, a new sense of hope has emerged, with thoughts of “things” — tentatively and guardedly, with a recent uptick in virus cases — returning to normal.

For churches, those things may be fuller pews or a simple visit from a beloved donkey to lift the spirits of children.

“To see the kids back and the excitement, it’s pretty encouraging,” said Honeyville Baptist Church Pastor Albert J. Dowker (pronounced Du-ker). “It’s great to have people back in regular attendance more and more. We followed all the protocols. We never would have dreamed the church would have been closed on Easter when this initially started.”

A horizon of hope

Benny the donkey provides a sense of normalcy on Palm Sunday during a visit to Honeyville Baptist Church in Adams Center. He was especially welcomed by children. Facebook/Honeyville Baptist Church

“After two-plus years of a life-threatening pandemic, the celebration message of Easter is more important and meaningful than ever before,” said the Rev. Andrew P. Long, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Watertown.

“After the cold of winter and stresses of COVID, we can move into a time of great joy,” said Donna L. Fitchette, pastor of Ogdensburg and Waddington United Methodist churches. “God makes everything new. New life in the form of spring flowers, wildlife and in our hearts. We will decorate with bright flowers and ribbons to celebrate the resurrection.”

Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg Bishop Terry R. LaValley recalled that two years ago, the Easter vigil was celebrated in empty churches.

A horizon of hope

“This year, we are blessed to celebrate Christ’s resurrection with the church — our families, friends, visitors and neighbors who make up the body of Christ,” said Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg Bishop Terry R. LaValley. Provided photo

“And the most joyous and holy day of the year lacked some of its joy,” Bishop LaValley said. “This year, we are blessed to celebrate Christ’s resurrection with the church — our families, friends, visitors and neighbors who make up the body of Christ. While we continue to exercise appropriate caution, we look forward to seeing similar smiling faces as we gather around the Lord’s table to celebrate his love for us and his defeat over death and sin.”

Those “faces” returning to church can’t be taken for granted, Pastor Dowker said.

“It’s been a gradual process, everyone getting back and getting back into the habit of it,” he said. “Church is one of those habits like anything else. You can get out of the habit pretty easily.”

Many church services shifted online during the pandemic, but the camaraderie of worship was lost for many dedicated church-goers.

“The pandemic has shown us that isolation and loneliness are just as deadly as any disease, and the good news of Easter is that we are truly never alone,” the Rev. Long said. “God is near. And because God is so near to us, we can, and should, be near to one another.”

This year, Easter arrives uncommonly late, following the canon of appearing on the first full, or paschal moon after the spring equinox. Next year, Easter arrives on April 9.

“As far as the message goes, it doesn’t change,” Pastor Dowker said. “You may change up a little bit, but it’s the same message in the hope we have of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Obviously, it’s centered around that. One of the things I like to point out and remember is the evidence of God all around us. And in the springtime, each year we have the hope of new beginnings. We are a rural, country church, with farm families and a diversified congregation. Each year, you look forward to that hope.”

‘New normal’

A horizon of hope

“What does resurrection look like for us, post-COVID? I don’t know if post-COVID is really where we are,” said the Rev. Jamel Javon “JJ” Flag of Emmanuel Congregational Church in Watertown. Provided photo

At Emmanuel Congregational Church in Watertown, the Rev. Jamel Javon “JJ” Flag planned to preach today on a theme of “the hope that comes after a hopeless situation.”

“That, to me is the story of Easter,” the Rev. Flag said. “The disciples and the followers and friends of Jesus thought they were on the road to something different, and then, life happened and Jesus was killed. Nothing about that looked promising. And then, Easter comes and there’s this resurrection.”

He added, “What does resurrection look like for us, post-COVID? I don’t know if post-COVID is really where we are. But I do think that in making this connection with the Biblical text and what’s going on today, I think the disciples had to get used to a new normal. That’s what we’re navigating as a wider church community and the world. What is this new normal going to be like?”

The Rev. Flag was hired at Emmanuel in 2020 and was officially installed as pastor in November 2021.

“Between myself and the congregation, we’re still very much in a get-to-know-you stage,” he said. “And that has to do with the first five or six months of being pastor primarily online and the vast majority of our interactions with one another being behind masks.”

A horizon of hope

Parishioners at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Canton gather around the paschal fire Saturday night as the Rev. Bryan D. Stitt lights a new paschal candle, which represents the light of Christ coming into the world. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

But with masks now mostly off and optional, the reverend welcomes a new challenge.

“I’m having to reacquaint myself with people — to get to know their faces just beyond their forehead and eyes,” the Rev. Flag said. “Sometimes I feel I’m reintroducing myself to people who I’ve known for over a year. It’s because I’m getting used to their faces.”

The church’s coffee hour, held after Sunday service, helps with those introductions. It returned about a month and a half ago as pandemic restrictions lifted.

“That was very welcomed as part of congregation life,” the Rev. Flag said. “It’s probably one of the best times we get to connect with one another. Nobody is talking about deep theological arguments and there’s no political conversation, but rather, ‘How has your week been? How is so-and-so doing?’ and really, just being able to check in with one another.”

At Honeyville Baptist Church, recent talk has been about Adams Center natives and missionaries James M. and Laurie G. Sliz, who remain in Ukraine. Since late 2011, they have lived most of the year in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, in the far western part of the country on the border of Slovakia. Three years ago, the couple switched their U.S. visits from summer months to a break during Christmas. Their main mission in Ukraine focuses on the youth of the country, who will need even more assistance following Russia’s ongoing invasion.

A few Sundays ago, Pastor Dowker read a letter from the Slizes to his congregation.

“Their work over there has ramped up,” he said. “They’re supplying a lot of need.”

And even in that need, and pain, a local pastor says the Easter message shines through.

“At its heart, the Easter message is about God not shying away from the immense tragedy and pain of human life,” the Rev. Long said. “From being betrayed by best friends, to falling victim to power gone wrong, and even dying like a common criminal, Jesus came to know the very worst life can offer. Because Jesus knows, God knows too. And we can be confident in our times of suffering that God is close by.”

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