UM innovation extends to Easter observances

By Sam Hodges, Managing Editor and Mary Jacobs, Staff Writer…

Easter is all about transformation, but Easter observances tend to be conservative, sticking to familiar (if stirring) music, and the usual texts and formats.

Jesus’ resurrection is the subject of a dramatic presentation on Easter Sunday at The Crossing in Russellville, Ark. Pictured are Nathan Freeman (right) and Gina Swain. PHOTO BY AMBER FREEZOR

The exceptions are out there, though.  They’re found in highly innovative congregations and in others where the weather seems a bit warm or cold to tackle this quintessential spring religious holiday in the usual way.

Here’s a sampling:

Easter Improv

At The Crossing, a coffeehouse-style worshipping community and satellite of Wesley UMC in Russellville, Ark., the Sunday evening Easter observance will center on a dramatic presentation. Nathan Freeman, a member of the community who participates regularly in The Crossing’s Friday night improv group, wrote the drama, based on the gospel account of the resurrection.

“It relates to the theme of ‘How did Christ’s resurrection affect our lives?’” he said. The drama will portray the resurrection through the eyes of Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, and how her life was transformed. The goal is an emotional experience of the Easter story.

“I hope it will rip their hearts out, to realize how much Christ loved us, and what he went through,” Mr. Freeman said.

Special sunrise service

The order of the sunrise service at Grace Place United Methodist Church in Memphis will be fairly traditional: a

Baptisms are the centerpiece of the Easter sunrise service on the beach for Gulf Breeze United Methodist in Gulf Breeze, Fla. Shown here from Easter 2012 are Scott Veroneau (left), pastor of the church’s Soundside campus, and Joe Driver, pastor of its Fairpoint campus. PHOTO BY JACQUE GORRIS

15-member choir will process to “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” and the Rev. Diane Harrison, the pastor, will place a lily at the foot of a tall wooden cross draped in white fabric. But the service will take place in the yard of a women’s prison, Mark H. Luttrell Correctional Center.

That’s the home of Grace Place, a rare prison congregation within the UMC.

The sunrise service caps off two other Holy Week events – a Seder meal, with prayers offered in Hebrew by a Jewish woman who is one of Grace Place’s most faithful attendees, and a Stations of the Cross in the prison’s chapel on Good Friday.

Sandwiches to go

Easter Sunday will find the Rev. Jerry Herships doing what he does every Sunday – ministering to the homeless at a park in downtown Denver, with communion and peanut butter & jelly sandwiches. However, Mr. Herships won’t lead Easter worship for the AfterHours Denver community he leads. AfterHours gathers weekly at a pub.

“We meet on Monday nights, so there’d be something really strange about saying ‘The Lord is Risen! (yesterday)’” he said.

Mr. Herships is also organizing a nationwide event on the Sunday following Easter, encouraging church and other groups to take PB&J sandwiches to the homeless for that normally quiet post-Easter Sunday.  So far, he has 37 UM churches and UM-related seminaries signed up. (For information, visit Following the good news of Easter, he says, it’s a way for churches to focus on becoming Christ’s hands and feet.

“We are going to show a lot of folks what it looks like when God’s love spills out of the churches and onto the streets,” he said.

Narratives and coffee

Urban Abbey, a nonprofit coffee shop started by First UMC in Omaha, will again have a Saturday night Easter vigil.

“Our folks don’t necessarily get up early on Sunday morning,” said the Rev. Debra McKnight, pastor to the coffee shop congregation.

Urban Abbey, a nonprofit coffee shop initiative of First UMC in Omaha, will have a Saturday night vigil for Easter, featuring themed story-telling and a mix of music styles. PHOTO COURTESY DEBRA MCKNIGHT

Last year’s vigil drew a full house of about 80 to the coffee shop. This year, she plans a service that mixes familiar hymns with contemporary music, including by the popular British roots music group, Mumford & Sons.

In place of a traditional sermon, the service will feature what Ms.  McKnight calls “modern crucifixion narratives,” such as accounts of domestic violence and discrimination.

The service will turn toward resurrection, she said, with a focus on the Emmaus story combined with stories of how people got out of domestic violence or worked together to end discrimination in particular circumstances.

All the while, the coffee will be flowing.

“We give the coffee and tea away in the half hour before the service,” she said.

House church Easter

Larga Vista House Church, a new UM congregation in Palos Verdes/Torrance, Calif., usually meets on the first and third Monday nights, but will vary that with a potluck Easter Sunday brunch.

The dozen regulars of the house church groupmost of them residents of the same streetwill, in addition to eating egg dishes and other breakfast foods, have worship, Bible study and communion.

And because they are mission-focused, they’ll wrap up with a food drive, having earlier distributed flyers asking neighbors to put out canned goods.

“We’ll be picking those up off people’s porches on Easter Sunday morning and taking those to the local food pantry,” said the Rev. Nicole Reilley, leader of the house church network of the California-Pacific Conference and part of the Larga Vista House Church team.

Ecumenical warmth

Getting into the Easter spirit in Nome, Alaska, can be a challenge, said the Rev. Julie Marie Yoder Elmore, pastor of Community UMC there.

“There’s no flowers coming up, no signs of spring,” she said. “Our snow doesn’t really start melting until May.”

What’s proved to help her and others in Nome, she said, is an ecumenical Easter service, to be held this year at the local Lutheran church.

The pastors plan the service together. Choirs from the different churches sing. And the larger-than-usual crowd, combined with the ecumenical spirit, sends a strong message of hope.

“We live in region with a pretty high suicide rate, so that message of home is even more important,” Ms. Elmore said.

Going under

Far from snowy Nome is Gulf Breeze, Fla., and there, Worship at the Water is a contemporary “shorts and flip flops” service held at Flounder’s Restaurant on Pensacola Beach every week, as an outreach of nearby Gulf Breeze United Methodist Church.

On Easter Sunday, however, all of the church’s pastors turn up at the water at sunrise for worship and baptisms. A joyous “you wet yet?” spirit prevails.

Last Easter, church leaders said, more than 100 people were immersed as the sun rose over Santa Rosa Sound.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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Unconventional Resurrection Sunday celebrations are probably much more in keeping with the First Reurrection Sunday than all of the pomp and circumstance the Christian church has developed the last 2000+ years. The folks way back then were scared out of their wits. Their Leader was dead, soldiers were marching, church hierarchy was scratching their chins to fingure out why there was an earthquake and why in the world the veil was torn from top to bottom. So long as the Celebration points to Father/Son/Holy Spirit and–wonder of wonders–a Risen Savior–the setting matters little. Becasue of the Empty Tomb they/we all… Read more »

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