‘All are welcome’

Easter fills church pews

Diana Rabold (left) of Altoona and Pastor Tim McGarvey of the Altoona Alliance Church carry a cross next to Simpson-Temple United Parish, along Sixth Avenue, on Friday afternoon during a Good Friday cross walk. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

Many faith communities have been struggling to fill their seats on the Sabbath, as more and more people pull away from institutional religion in favor of private expressions of spirituality, according to the spokesman for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

But they tend to come back to their churches on the holiest days, said Tony DeGol, speaking Tuesday, near the beginning of what Catholics call Holy Week.

“There’s something about Christmas and Easter that draws people,” DeGol said. “People feel a yearning to be in the pews to be with their fellow Catholics or whatever their faith tradition.”

Accordingly, he expects the seats in the diocesan churches to be full today, he said.

Some who attend Mass regularly make jokes about Catholics who show up only on Easter and Christmas, DeGol said.

But those who don’t come often shouldn’t hesitate to come today, DeGol said.

“All are welcome,” he stated.

More Lutherans attend services on Christmas and Easter than at any other times, according to Bishop Michael Rhyne of the Allegheny Synod.

“(Thus) I’m not sure that Easter is a good indication of the state of the faith life in the community,” Rhyne said.

Still, “I want people to show up on Easter,” the most important day of the Christian liturgical year, climax of the observance that includes Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, he said.

“Whether people go every week or haven’t gone for a long time, God still works in us,” Rhyne said.

Like DeGol, Rhyne said those who’ve stayed away shouldn’t shy away from returning today.

“All churches are going to be happy you’re there,” he said. “The invitation is always open.”

Everyone hungers for spiritual connection, and that hunger is usually satisfied most fully when we’re not alone, he said.

“I think the best place to find (it) is in a Christian community with Christian sisters and brothers,” where we can “stop all the busyness of our lives (and feel) peace and hope and fulfillment,” Rhyne said.

Still, Easter is only as special as the rest of the days of the year, just as a married couple’s wedding anniversary is only as good as their day-to-day relationship, according to Jim Balzano, lead pastor of Trans4mation Church. Only insofar as a Christian’s connection with Christ is good is the Easter celebration good, in the way a couple’s marriage determines the quality of their anniversary celebration, he said.

Trans4mation has worked to fulfill its year-round Christian commitment in revitalizing Lower Fairview, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Emblematic of that work is the 4 in the middle of Trans4mation, representing four “things we want to do to impact our city”: Bless it, love it, invest in it and serve it, Balzano said.

The church’s investment, under the banner of “The Nehemiah Project,” has totaled about $3 million, Balzano said.

Pastor Derek Heilmann of the Vineyard Church in Altoona has a similar perspective.

“The measurement is not how many seats are filled on Easter,” Heilmann said. “The measurement is how many people engage in the kingdom of God the rest of the year.”

Jesus talks about such engagement in Matthew 25, commending those who’ve fed the hungry, clothed the naked and visited the imprisoned and sick — those who have helped others heal, made others whole and shown others care, love and compassion, Heilmann said.

While others emphasized the expression of faith beyond the holy Easter season, United Methodist Susquehanna Conference spokesman Shawn Gilgore emphasized the expression of faith beyond the holy place that is church.

New initiatives among the Methodist churches of Central Pennsylvania have taken worship “out of the church sanctuary and into the communities where our neighbors live,” he wrote in an email. “Meeting in homes, coffee shops, even at a gym or on a rugby field.”

More members of congregations in the conference have been doing local, regional and even global mission work, according to Gilgore. “They are led to be out in their local communities sharing the good news.”

Passover, which was on Friday and Saturday this year and which is historically connected with Easter, is the most celebrated of all Jewish holidays, centering on “the great narrative in Jewish scripture” and, like Easter, applicable to the faith community throughout the year, according to Bill Wallen, executive director of the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation.

The narrative tells of the Jewish people’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt and the birth of the Jewish nation, and it has become an almost universal archetype, not just for escape from physical bondage, but for freedom from enslavements of all kinds, including drugs, money and other potential scourges of the modern world — for both Jews and non-Jews, those working on their own behalf and those working on behalf of others, according to Wallen.

The story is meant to evoke empathy for the stranger, for the oppressed and for the enslaved, and it should lead to action, Wallen said.

“We are to be partners with God in the improvement of the world,” he said.

It also means to help those contending with “modern plagues,” analogous to the plagues that afflicted the Egyptians prior to the flight of the Israelites.

“The Egyptians suffered, too,” Wallen said.

After the Israelites had triumphed, after the sea had closed over the Egyptians, and the Israelites were singing and dancing, God chided them, saying the Egyptians “are my children, too,” and that it’s wrong to celebrate when anyone suffers, Wallen said.

Interest in organized religion is waning, yet interest in spirituality is at an all-time high, according to David Banaszak, district executive minister for the Middle Pennsylvania District of the Church of the Brethren.

Many feel mistrustful of institutions, because of misconduct, including failures to deal with sexual abuse, Banaszak said.

Many also feel vulnerable from news of terrorism and threatened by instability from rampant political divisiveness, he said.

But the candle burns brightest in the darkest prisons, and Easter shows that no matter what the world delivers, even grisly death by crucifixion, there can be “victory and resurrection,” Banaszak said. “In a world and a society where political upheaval and instability seem to be the norm, Easter points us to a greater kingdom beyond our political entities, something bigger, more permanent, not transitory.”

The message of Easter is light and hope, he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.