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Passover, Easter Celebrants Must Exchange Togetherness For Solitude In 2020

High holy days for three major world religions all occur in April this year.  Muslims observe the month of Ramadan beginning April 23rd.  Jews mark the week of Passover starting tonight, and Christians celebrate Easter this Sunday.  While the holidays traditionally mean larger congregations and shared meals, the 2020 versions will be more solitary.

Some church leaders around the country are defying stay at home orders.  But local religious leaders say that’s a misunderstanding of what defines a house of worship.

"I'm really a firm believer that our location should not determine our level of praise."

Pastor Thomas Nixon of St. Stephen AME Church in Wilmington says it’s true that the church is scattered right now but that doesn’t mean it’s a time to be idle in one’s spiritual practice.

"Our greatest service to humankind, to our communities, our cities, our country, is when we spread out, when we take what we’ve received within, the energy, and then we go out and spread it out – spread His Word, His goodness."

Reverend Chris Hamby of St. James Parish in Wilmington says it’s important to understand the church is not a building.

"The church is the people. We might be in our desert wandering right now, in our time in the life of the church and 2020, but the church is not a building. The church is the people. So that's how we are gathered together."

Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov of the Temple of Israel says Passover is typically a time when even less-observant Jews come together.  But for those who worry about not finding matzoh on store shelves or otherwise failing to adhere to Seder traditions, the highest mitzvah, says the Rabbi, overrules that need. 

"In my opinion, to really understand and to love God is to love the powers that God has given us to understand the medical world and within Judaism, our most important commandment is what we call Pakuach Nefesh, which means to save a life. And we're taught that if you can save one life, it's as if you've saved the entire world -- and you have for that person."

Central to both Passover and Easter traditions are stories of transcendence.  But Reverend Chris Hamby of St. James Parish admits he misses the physical practice of Communion.  He will especially miss it this Easter Sunday.

"I cannot wait to be back with everyone at St. James and celebrate the Eucharist. I'm not a big emotional person, but I know that first time we're back together will be incredibly emotional for me because I haven't had Eucharist and it's almost a month now. And that's a big deal for me. And that's such a central thing to my life."

All three -- Reverend Hamby, Pastor Nixon, and Rabbi Losben-Ostrov -- agree that the most important practice while keeping physical distance is nurturing community. 

Rabbi Losben-Ostrov:  "And to know that even if we are alone in a physical space, we are not truly alone… Whether it is just to simply pick up a phone or to watch something and know that someone else is watching it at the same time, the important part is to not feel alone and the only way we can really help others to not feel alone is to not forget them.

"I think it’s all the more important that during these times, whether it’s my congregation or other faith leaders – parishioners -- that we do our level best, we go the extra mile to make sure we stay in touch with those persons. But not only during this time of crisis, but we should be staying in touch with them all of the time."

Reaching out to others is the best way, they say, to understand that you are not alone. 

The Passover holiday celebrates freedom, and while this one comes during a time when people might feel restricted, the Rabbi encourages people to see it as an opportunity for growth.

"At the end of the day, we have to remember that this freedom is more than being able to go to favorite restaurants or being able to eat together.  It's about understanding what it means to no longer be slaves unto our constant desire and the imperative to work to help free those who are still enslaved."

For more than a week, North Carolinians have lived under a statewide stay-at-home order, except for necessary trips to pick up food or medicine.  Governor Roy Cooper says he’s especially conscious of the temptation of the holidays – but it’s not safe at this point to gather with friends and family.

"Even though we won’t be together in the pews or at each other’s homes, we are together in spirit.  Social distancing means we can’t hold our loved ones close, but now is the time to hold tight to our faith."

Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov offers this:

"One of the expressions that I've heard people say a lot in English is that this, too, shall pass. And the Hebrew version of that is Gam zeh ya'avor."

Resources for attending services online or by phone:

St. Stephen AME Church:  Services are live online at 10 AM Sunday mornings, including Easter Sunday.  Find the service on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/StStephenAME/

or call in at 712.770.4598 access code:  275306

Temple of Israel:  Connect on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/TempleOfIsraelWilmington/

Find more on the website:  https://temple-of-israel.org/

St. James Episcopal Parish:  https://www.facebook.com/pg/stjamesp/


Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.