‘Now there’s hope’: Routt County churches adjust Easter services to COVID-19 for 2nd year

The Rev. Catie Greene goes through the first Station of the Cross at St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Friday with Roger Carlson. The Stations of the Cross, also known as the Way of the Cross or the Way of Sorrows, is a way images depict Jesus Christ on the day of his crucifixion and accompanying prayers. (Photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — One word comes to Maggie Taylor’s mind as she thinks about holding in-person Easter services: “hope.”

As people around the world deal with grief throughout the year due to COVID-19, Taylor, associate pastor at Heart of Steamboat United Methodist Church, saw a glimpse of hope in her future as she helped plan an in-person Easter service.

Community members wanting to attend the service are invited to hike the Blackmer Trail on Emerald Mountain at sunrise and then attend an outdoor service at 10:30 a.m.

“We’re super excited about meeting in person,” Taylor said. “We’re just excited to see people again in person and have those interactions that I think are missed.”

Worshiping in the era of social distancing

By their very nature, many religious services require in-person interaction: singing, partaking in Holy Communion or other services, prayer circles, after-church hugs and refreshments.

For Scott Segal, rabbi at Har Mishpacha, transitioning singing and scripture reading to an online platform sometimes felt like an impossible task. The delays on Zoom, awkward silences when someone forgets to unmute themselves and lack of in-person camaraderie sometimes made it difficult to enjoy services.

“There’s just a different feel to it,” Segal said. “When you’re in-person and together, it’s certainly a lot easier to read the room and get a sense of if you feel like people are engaged or if they’re ready to be done and move on.”

Segal has held almost all services over Zoom throughout the past year, and while nothing replaces in-person interaction, Segal said he has gotten used to virtual platforms and appreciates having something rather than nothing.

“We’ve gotten so used to it that I don’t think it carries the same challenges that it did a year ago when we were tying to figure out Zoom,” Segal said.

Troy Lewis, lead pastor at Steamboat Christian Center, said his congregation averaged about 750 to 800 people before COVID-19, which made the idea of transitioning to virtual services feel nearly impossible. Lewis and his staff recorded services for community members to watch, but Lewis knew nothing could replicate the hugs, handshakes and tears that in-person services bring.

“There’s just something about being with people that we all have missed,” Lewis said. “One of the reasons people go to church is for the social interaction.”

Hope in a dark time

Several religious leaders across the Yampa Valley said they noticed more people seeking out religion during the pandemic. Names they had never seen before or not seen in years were popping up on Zoom screens and people were calling church buildings to ask about services.

Lewis attributes the increased number of people seeking religion to shared grief and uncertainty as people saw tragedy on the news, dealt with financial stress and lost loved ones due to COVID-19.

“One of the interesting things is there have been a lot of families that we’ve met for the first time that have indicated that they’ve been attending online services for the last several months,” Lewis said. “People were just looking for hope and looking for encouragement and looking for some sort of connection and good news.”

Taylor, who also runs the youth programs at Heart of Steamboat, said she also saw more youth looking to participate in activities as their normal after-school activities were canceled or transitioned to virtual formats.

“I think houses of worship are providing an outlet for service as well as a glimmer of hope and a light at the end of the tunnel and that community that so many need,” Taylor said. “Even if we weren’t meeting in-person, we were having Zoom coffee and Bible study that provided meaningful connections to people that needed that at this time.”

JoAnne Grace, spiritual care coordinator for Northwest Colorado Health Hospice, said she saw more hospice patients seeking out spiritual care, as they wanted something positive amid isolation and sadness.

“It’s another way to keep hope alive,” Grace said. “It’s another way to move through life so that you don’t get bogged down by the fears and anxieties.”

A light at the end of the tunnel

Betsy Johnston looks forward each Sunday to being able to attend in-person mass. Johnston, office manager at Holy Name Catholic Church, said the church’s system of requiring reservations for those wanting to attend services has worked well and those attending have kept the rules of wearing masks and social distancing.

“At this point, it seems like people just know what to do,” Johnston said. “We require masks, we have hand sanitizer everywhere available, we have sign-in sheets for contact tracing.”

While the rules have gone well and Johnston appreciates the opportunity to have in-person services, she looks forward to the day church members can hug one another and sing together without masks.

“It’s just been a long year of being alone for lot of people,” Johnston said. “We feel that people just want to be together.”

Steamboat Christian Center held its first in-person service last week, which Lewis said signaled a new era as more people continue to receive vaccines and cases decline.

“That really was kind of a game-changer for us,” Lewis said. “There was just an electrifying energy in the air.”

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