Empty beach on Easter morning

Sunrise service goes virtual for the first time due to the coronavirus pandemic

Lance Shearer

At daybreak on Sunday, along the Gulf of Mexico shoreline, it was a morning like any other morning, but an Easter unlike any other Easter.

Marco Island’s Easter Sunrise Service, which brings thousands to the beach behind the Marriott hotel and Madeira condominium in the predawn darkness each year on Easter morning, went virtual due to the covid-19 pandemic.

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As the dawn’s light revealed the beach, it revealed there were no people where the Easter crowd should have been massed; no stage and speaker columns set up where the pastors and musicians have delivered their message every year; just a few mourning doves calling out, and a pair of dolphins swimming along out in the Gulf where, on other Easter mornings, the spectator fleet has bobbed in the swells.

So, there was no service, and not much of a sunrise – the morning dawned pearly and gray, with condos in the distance at the ends of the arc of beach, softened by the mist. But as the pastors who gave their sermons virtually instead of in-person pointed out, Easter was still Easter.

The three Christian ministers who had been slated to deliver homilies at the sunrise service each emphasized that the pandemic could cancel the gathering on the beach but could not affect the underlying reason for it.

“Easter still happens. God is still sovereign, still good, still loves us,” said Rev. Scott Kerens of Marco Presbyterian Church, which has organized and hosted the Sunrise Service since its inception 32 years ago. “It will still be Easter morning, and He still rose.”

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Reached by phone, Kerens previewed the message he would deliver via a Vimeo livestream, scheduled to go live at 7 a.m., Sunday morning, just when the traditional beach observances were scheduled to start. To add to the “you are there” feel, the sermon was video-recorded as the sun rose a couple days earlier, with the rosy sky in the background.

Kerens took as his text Isaiah chapter 60, verses 1-3, and titled his talk “Rise and Shine.”

“Arise and shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you,” says the Bible quotation, apparently the origin of the “rise and shine” in common usage.

“Almost four billion people this morning are under orders by their leaders to stay home to flatten the curve and keep the virus from spreading,” Kerens said. “There is a darkness that covers the earth. But God gives us a daily reminder of His care for us in the sunrise.”

Kerens began with Marco Presbyterian 16 months ago as assistant to Pastor Steve Schoof, and has now transitioned to the senior pastor role, with Schoof going to part-time and focusing on teaching. Schoof is more visible in the Presbyterian Church’s 10:30 service Sunday morning, a longer, more traditional presentation with music including “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” and featuring a Q&A session between Kerens and Schoof.

“The good news is that Jesus is still resurrected,” said Pastor Thomas McCulley of New Life Community Church, a longtime speaker at the Sunrise Service. Like Marco Presbyterian, streaming Sunday services on the web is nothing new for New Life.

“I’ve had a larger audience online than in front of me for years,” said McCulley, although the massive beach gathering Easter morning is likely the exception. The empty beach on Easter morning, he said, could be seen as a stand in for the empty tomb after Jesus’ resurrection.

“It takes some of the bitterness out of it,” not being able to congregate on the beach, he said. McCulley took his talk from John 21:4-7, where Jesus appears to his disciples after the Resurrection on a beach. He closed with an extended paraphrasing of that other theological touchstone, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” adapted to Easter in the time of covid-19.

The sun rises over an empty beach, where there would normally be thousands gathered. For the first time in 32 years, the traditional Easter Sunrise Service on the Gulf of Mexico beach was not held Sunday morning due to the coronavirus.

“It came without bonnets, it came without bunnies, it came without egg hunts, cantatas, or money. Then the world thought of something it hadn’t before. ‘Maybe Easter,’ it thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Easter, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

Like most houses of worship, New Life and Marco Presbyterian will continue to stream their services as the island and the nation remain in lockdown. Marco’s Easter Sunrise Service is the largest in Florida and probably the country, said longtime organizer Alan Sandlin, and added, echoing the pastors, “the good news is we’re not cancelling Easter.”

The massive Easter egg hunt sponsored by the city’s parks and recreation department was another casualty of the pandemic. Across Marco, restaurants, parks and stores are shuttered. The JW Marriott hotel, which would normally be at sellout, has less than five percent occupancy, said sales and marketing director Amanda Cox.

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But Schoof said he has seen some good come from the situation, with people valuing and cherishing person to person contact. And Kerens said he is already looking ahead to next year’s sunrise gathering on the beach.

The online Easter services can be accessed at marcochurch.com and newlifemarco.org.