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Faith Leaders Share Experiences During An Unusual Easter

TOM GJELTEN, HOST:

Delivering sermons online is just one of the challenges church leaders are facing this Easter weekend. They're also figuring out how to offer counseling or confession to parishioners while maintaining social distance and how to manage church finances with so many of their members out of work or unable to attend services and make an offering.

We're joined now by three faith leaders who can share their experiences and concerns as they face this new situation. We have Father Carl Beekman, who leads the Church of St. Mary in Sycamore, Ill., Pastor Cheryl Matthews of Christ Lutheran Church in Arcadia, Wis., and Pastor Kenneth Flowers of Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit, Mich.

Welcome to you all. Thanks for joining us. And I hope you're taking care of yourselves.

CARL BEEKMAN: Thank you very much. It's a great privilege to be here. I'm Father Carl Beekman.

CHERYL MATTHEWS: It's a great pleasure to be here. I thank you for this opportunity.

KENNETH FLOWERS: And thank you for having me on. I've been under a lot - just had to put my wife in the hospital last night. She has double pneumonia and coronavirus, so definitely keep me in prayer. This is Pastor Flowers from Detroit.

BEEKMAN: Well, God bless her, Pastor. I definitely will.

MATTHEWS: You are in our prayers.

GJELTEN: Pastor Flowers, we're so sorry to hear that. And I hope that she does recover. And your wife is not the only member of your family, I understand, who's been affected by coronavirus.

FLOWERS: Yes. My mother has been hospitalized with double pneumonia and coronavirus since March 29. And she was just discharged yesterday to a rehab center, where she will spend the next eight days growing stronger. My brother-in-law also has double pneumonia and coronavirus. My niece has coronavirus. My sister has it, and now my wife. And so it's hit my family very - a lot.

And I've lost two members of my congregation to it, and several other members of the congregation have it and have either been hospitalized or have been recovering at home. So we've been hit hard here in Detroit, and it's hit me personally very hard in terms of my family and church family.

GJELTEN: And let's turn to you now, Father Beekman. I think you wrote a newsletter to your members this week asking for prayers for some of the smaller churches who are feeling losses from the coronavirus. How are the families in your church doing?

BEEKMAN: They're doing pretty well. I've just really been reaching out - you know, we've had quite a bit of job loss in the area, had a few funerals - nothing like what pastor Flowers has been through. But it's been difficult just trying to keep everybody motivated in their faith. But really, it's interesting how many people are really sending in their prayer intentions. They're reaching out to each other, whether it be calling in and checking up on the elderly and the sick.

And the health care workers, whether it be doctors and nurses, are really - they're really stressed out because we have a couple Northwestern Hospitals here in the area. So people have been very, very generous in reaching out. So it's really been a huge blessing for us.

GJELTEN: Well, I'm glad to hear that. And now to you, Pastor Matthews. You have a smaller church. I understand you only have about a hundred people worshipping with you on a normal Sunday. How are your members doing?

MATTHEWS: They are grieving the fact that we can't come together for worship, so we have gone to FaceTime Live worship. And it's amazing how many views we get on Sunday. The high point was 950 views. And so it's amazing how many people have been tuning in. The reach is far and wide on FaceTime Live.

And we are doing outreach to our people every week with a mailing, which has (unintelligible) of our service, a word from me and encouragement and an offering envelope. And we have more money coming in than we did on Sunday morning, so it's been amazing.

GJELTEN: That's amazing. Pastor Flowers, Pastor Matthews just mentioned that she's actually received bigger offerings as a result of people coming together. I know that many churches are strained financially by this situation. What's the - what's your financial challenge right now with so many of the people in your congregation affected?

FLOWERS: We have an older congregation, and so our members bring their moneys. They're not as advanced in terms of paying online. So we have been hit hard by not being able to meet. Now, last Sunday was better than the previous three Sundays, but still, it was at least about 10,000 or more less than what we normally would have gotten on a first Sunday. And so it's still impacting us.

And so we're just encouraging our members because a lot of our members are not able to work now because here in Detroit, you have the stay-at-home order. You have people who are getting sick. And so when our members cannot work, they are not getting paid.

GJELTEN: And, Father Beekman, what's the situation in your parish? Have you seen a decline in giving? Are you at all worried about that?

BEEKMAN: We have seen a decline in giving. Yeah, I will be worried if it goes on much longer - I mean, it goes a month or two longer. But we've seen a decrease, I'd say, 20% or so.

GJELTEN: I want to ask each of you about what kind of Easter message you've prepared for this year. What is it that you hope your church members are taking away from whatever Easter sermon you will be giving this year? Father Beekman, you want to go first?

BEEKMAN: Well, yes. Basically, the message is, did I go through this pandemic eating junk food, not really going deeper in prayer, being - growing in charity with my family, my spouse, my kids and whoever you're around and seeing and appreciating the dignity of human life, really appreciating what it is to live or to have a job or to see a human being and want to have integral human development as far as seeking a certain perfection?

Otherwise, I'm just going to eat junk food and having - you know, living like a human gut wagon, so to speak, or just being, you know, just really rough and going back to my rough life that I took everything for granted - the love of God, the seeking the perfection and seeing a human being as a human being and having dignity and loving them for who they are - you know, things like that. But that's what it is to have a resurrected life.

GJELTEN: Wise words from you. And, Pastor Matthews, what Easter message did you prepare?

MATTHEWS: I talked about not being able to gather in a crowded sanctuary for the highest day of the church year together, but that we remember the first Easter was not celebrated in overflowing worship space with joyful song and praise because that first Easter, the disciples were locked in and hiding in the upper room. It was dangerous for them to come out. They were huddled together in fear, even after hearing that Christ has risen by Mary Magdalene. And they were hiding for their lives. If they went out, their lives could be at risk, and the lives of their loved ones.

So this year, we all experience a taste of that first Easter. Some of us find ourselves huddled in fear in our homes, wondering if the dreaded coronavirus will find its way in. And we also have our doubts. Everything seems out of whack and off balance. Many of us are tired and uncertain and sad and discouraged. But eventually, the disciples walked out of the room when the fear and (unintelligible) had subsided. And I said, as this Easter season is a time of hunkering down in our homes, we can dare to believe that hope is on the horizon.

GJELTEN: And, Pastor Flowers, a message of hope is very important for you personally as well as for your congregation.

FLOWERS: What I share today was that in the midst of coronavirus, in the midst of COVID-19, in the midst of all we've gone through, it became spiritually a Good Friday moment for us in which Jesus was crucified, and it was dark. It was gloomy, sad. And that's the way we have felt and (unintelligible) dark, gloomy, sad. But Resurrection Sunday, Easter's always right around the corner. And Easter always gives us that hope that we shall overcome our darkness, our pain, our agony.

BEEKMAN: Awesome.

GJELTEN: Well, Pastor Flowers, we're all with you during this difficult time. That was Pastor Kenneth Flowers of Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit, Mich. - also Pastor Cheryl Matthews of Christ Lutheran Church in Arcadia, Wis., and Father Carl Beekman of the Church of St. Mary in Sycamore, Ill.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

BEEKMAN: Thank you for the privilege.

FLOWERS: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: Thank you. A blessed Easter to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUFJAN STEVENS' "SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.