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Apr. 4—YOUNGSTOWN — The fog had begun to lift and the sun began to blaze over the parade ground of Old Fort Niagara.
The Rev. Rex Stewart of First Presbyterian Church in Youngstown said organizers had made a conscious decision not to begin their traditional Easter morning service in the pre-dawn dark, hoping for a little extra warmth. COVID protocols would prevent the pastor's usual call to worshippers.
"I would ordinarily say, 'Come closer. Gather together and stay warm'," Stewart told a rapidly growing crowd as he stood on a makeshift alter at the edge of Lake Ontario. "But I won't this year. This year we'll stay in our socially distanced family groups."
But no one in the congregation of about 150 worshippers seemed to mind.
On the holiest day of the Christian faith, those who gathered seemed far more eager to just resume a celebration that had been placed on hold by the novel coronavirus.
Bernice Schoener and her family have been unable at attend regular Sunday services at their church, Kenmore Presbyterian, because of the pandemic. So when her sister, who lives in Lewiston, told her about the ecumenical services in Youngstown, the family decided they'd join in the experience.
"We decided it would be a nice thing to do," Schoener said, as she sat in a folding chair, wrapped in heavy blankets to fight the mid-30 degree weather and winds. "There's a sense of community (in attending)."
That feeling was shared by Rev. Steve Hong, associate paster of family life at First Presbyterian Church of Youngstown. Hong came to the church in August of 2002, so this was his first outdoor Easter sunrise service.
"My hands are really cold," he said with a chuckle. "Should have worn gloves. Rookie mistake."
But for Hong, the the gently rippling waters of the lake, the bright rising sun and the outdoor alter all combined with as a symbol of the Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
"I though it was beautiful and meaningful," Hong said. "It's the symbolism of the new start and renewal."
Remembrance and renewal were the focus of Stewart's Easter message to the worshippers. He sang the song Try to Remember from the musical "The Fantasticks" and the asked the congregation if they could recall the time before Covid.
"Do you remember before Covid? When we could sing as lustily as we wanted," Stewart asked. "Do you remember the Lord and the Lord's Prayer?"
But while suggesting that the worshippers may long for a "return to normal", Stewart asked them why they wanted to "go back to normal."
"The old normal wasn't so goof," Stewart said, citing systemic racism, economic disparity and gender inequality. "I don't want to go back to normal. Such a normal is abominable to God and to Jesus. But our society and our world can be resurrected."
Stewart closed his message by singing the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome." Many in the crowd, under their masks, sang along with him.
"You have heard the good news," Stewart told the worshippers. "So go forth and live it and spread it into the world."