CHARLOTTE, N.C. — This Easter Sunday, many churches are preparing for people in their pews for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic lead many churches to close their doors.
“To come back together, we’re so excited that we can open up the church and do it,” Brenda Stevenson, the pastor of New Outreach Christian Center in Northwest Charlotte, told WCNC Charlotte's Tanya Mendis.
The sanctuary of the church now contains hand-sanitizing stations and stands with masks for those who enter.
“Stay vigilant,” Stevenson cautioned.
In Dilworth, the familiar call-and-response rituals echoed through Good Friday Mass at St. Patrick Cathedral.
“It’s a religious event that touches our souls and our light deeply and it’s important for us to come together,” Msgr. Patrick Winslow, chancellor of the Diocese of Charlotte said. “It’s deeply meaningful, it’s consistent with our nature and who we are as people, but also consistent with our faith who we are as a family of believers.”
Last year, the Vatican ordered every Catholic church to cancel in-person services.
This year, a return -- but with changes.
“I’m thrilled that we can expect some gathering of the faithful,” Winslow said. “It is light years ahead of where we were last year.”
On Friday approximately 200 people attended the mid-afternoon services in Dilworth. The priests offered communion, but they sanitized their hands between families.
Though most people were not wearing masks, rows in the church were blocked off to help with distancing.
Winslow said the changes will feel odd at first.
“There will be empty pews in the churches which is simply never ever seen during Holy Week or especially Easter masses,” he said. “It is going to be a strange site but, nonetheless, a lot better than seeing an empty church as it was last year.”
The return of traditions will bring renewed hope, Winslow said.
“This is a season of hope and of joy and to see how it aligns so beautifully with this moment that we’re in, coming out of a rather challenging year that one might say is filled with a certain amount of darkness, it’s welcome and we’re glad to usher it in with the celebration of Easter,” he said.
Stevenson agreed but said she knows the challenges are still ongoing for many members of her church and community.
Easter Sunday service at New Outreach Christian Center will conclude with a massive giveaway for those in need. The church is collecting food, Easter baskets, coats for children, toiletries, and other necessities.
Stevenson said there’s no better season to give.
“Easter is a time to keep on giving because the Lord gave his life for us,” Stevenson said. “It means that the Lord is still with us. No matter what we be through God is still with us.”
Meanwhile, Tyson Coughlin, pastor at Vizion Church, understands the world is still dealing with COVID-19. He says they're doing everything they can to make people feel safe.
"For us, it's going to be a little unique we're going to give people options, of course, we're temperature checking at the door we have hand sanitizing stations everywhere," Coughlin said. "But we have different sections in the building where we socially distance and then other areas where it's open seating for the general public."
He also feels like this year brings more hope.
"I think it's going to be extra special for those who have been distanced and away from their loved ones," Coughlin said. "There's nothing like being together."
While thoughts of people are getting vaccinated every day, some people may still be on the fence about going to church.
"In a way, COVID has traumatized the community," Charlotte therapist Veronda Bellamy said.
Bellamy said her patients have mixed feelings. Some people are excited to get back out there but others are fearful and anxious.
"I think COVID has heightened our awareness to what could come so I think we will always be more alert as a community going forward," Bellamy said.
As families gather for the Easter holiday, Bellamy offers advice as things began to inch towards normalcy.
"You will be okay if you start to feeling anxiety it's completely normal," Bellamy said. "The biggest thing is you take care of yourself and those around you."
Vizion Church also planned a virtual service for those unsure about attending in-person.