MARCO ISLAND — It was a beautiful morning to get up early.
Thousands on Marco Island got the chance, rising before dawn on Easter Sunday to head down to the beach behind the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort for Marco’s 22nd Annual Easter Sunrise Service.
Participants sat in the cool darkness, and watched as the light grew in the east. A steady stream of cars and pedestrians carrying folding chairs, plus strollers, blankets and a few fat-tired sand-friendly wheelchairs, made their way down Collier Blvd. and across to the beach.
On any other morning, you would not want to try parking your car in the street right in front of the Marriott, but Sunday, police officers including bicycle cop George Guyer and volunteers wearing fluorescent CERT vests directed traffic, blocking off one lane in each direction and keeping everyone safe.
Rob and Angela Ribbe brought their daughters Grace, 4, and Lauren, 2. The couple has another one on the way.
“We had to get up really early,” confided Grace.
After an organ prelude by Marv Hollenbeck, Alan Sandlin welcomed the congregants. He announced he had learned from Google that Marco’s Easter sunrise service was the largest in Florida.
When Sandlin asked for anyone who had been at the first Marco sunrise Easter service 22 years ago to stand, John Kett rose out of the crowd. Kett said he was one of the organizers of that inaugural event. Gesturing at the sea of people all around, he remembered that only a couple of hundred came out for that first service.
This Sunday’s gathering was a joint effort by three island churches: the New Life Community Church of God, Marco Presbyterian Church, and the First Baptist Church of Marco Island. The pastors of the three churches shared speaking duties at the family-friendly, inter-denominational ceremony.
Rev. Thomas McCulley of New Life Community Church spoke first, leading the congregation in prayer, in front of a rough wooden cross draped in a simple white cloth. He quoted Isaac Bashevis Singer, who said paradoxically, “of course I believe in free will – I have no choice.”
The audience joined in singing “Alleluia! Alleluia!” and then listened as the accomplished vocal trio of Anna Schilling, Ben Sprankle and Amanda Gomes harmonized onstage.
The Easter Message, or sermon, was delivered by Rev. William Lyle of Marco Presbyterian. He took as his theme “The King Lives…and It Isn’t Elvis.” Lyle compared the life and death of Elvis Presley to the death and rebirth of Jesus, saying Elvis, unlike Christ, “has zero impact on my life.”
The message of Easter, he said, is we do have a choice in life. “You can change your life,” said Lyle. “The choice is yours.”
In a tribute to the efficacy of beach renourishment, even with the thousands who sat or milled around in front of the stage and loudspeakers set up on the sand, there was plenty of room for everyone, and a strip of mostly unpopulated sand near the water’s edge.
When the service started, some migrated over close to the water to enjoy the early morning with a little extra breathing room. Amateur photographer Paula Dennis arrived before 6 a.m. to capture the event, as more and more worshipers arrived to swell the crowd.
“I love being outdoors for Easter service,” she said. “It’s a fabulous feeling, like you’re where God intends you to be.”
Joe Reinert, 7, and his sister Mackenzie, 3, used their space to do a little sandcastle building as mom and dad took in the sermon.
Police and firefighters stood by, with a dune buggy and four-wheel-drive SUV, and a fire engine out on Collier Blvd., but there was no need for their services as the beautiful morning dawned.
Out in the Gulf of Mexico, a spectator fleet of approximately 40 boats gathered offshore to join the ceremony. The words from the loudspeakers echoed off the anchored boats, and gentle waves barely stirred the crystal-clear water.
The sky brightened, and the sun rose over the beachside buildings, picking out each boat and eventually the audience in their chairs. Sandlin thanked the Marriott, the condominium neighbors, and all the volunteers who made the occasion possible.
Rev. Timothy Neptune of the First Baptist Church led the closing moments and prayer, and the throngs of worshippers headed toward a well-deserved breakfast.