Easter on the beach: Marco’s 32nd Annual Sunrise Service attracts thousands of worshippers

Lance Shearer

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Marco Island’s traditional Easter Sunrise Service this year is that it happened.

For the last two years, the multi-denominational gathering that annually attracts thousands to the beach, behind the Madeira condominium just north of the Marriott, has been cancelled, a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, when organizers held the event this year, they did not know if people would come back in the numbers they have in the past, especially since Easter this year fell later in April.

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On a beautiful, balmy Sunday morning, with the full moon sinking into the Gulf of Mexico just ahead of the sun’s rise, the crowds once again thronged the beach to hear the Easter message. With four pastors from three churches, and longtime emcee Alan Sandlin on the podium, an estimated 5-6,000 sat as the growing light illuminated the scene. Just two among the thousands were spotted wearing face masks.

Paradise Strings, an instrumental ensemble, with violins and cello augmented by the guitar, keyboards and voice of hymn writer Matt Papa, provided a musical prelude as the congregation found its seats, some opting to sit right in front of the stage and others choosing to be back, closer to the gently lapping waves, where space was more plentiful.

Sandlin welcomed the crowd and saw many hands go up when he asked how many were attending for the first time. Only a few hands were raised in response to his next question, “how many of you have been to all 32 services?” Two of those who had were Dan and Becky Vander Muelen, who attend the Family Church on Marco, as Pastor Casey Nowlin was proud to point out as he delivered the opening prayer. Nowlin asked his lord to “forgive us for being Christians in name only.”

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Pastor Scott Kerens of Marco Presbyterian Church delivered the principal Easter message, after the prayer for the message was given by Marco Presbyterian’s senior assistant pastor Steve Schoof.

“Jesus died for you and me despite our sin,” said Kerens, as well as all others. “He died for the sleazy politician, the persistent liar, and one who has lifted sexuality higher than God. He died for you and me despite the fact that … we place our hope in politics or money or career of family or power, comfort, control or approval.”

As the pastor spoke of the Son rising two thousand years ago, the sun rose above the horizon. First the boats of the spectator fleet were picked out, then the people standing close to the water, their shadows streaming out far behind them. Eventually, all were lit by the rising sun, last of all the ministers and musicians on the stage.

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The crowd stood for prayers and songs, including familiar numbers such as “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” written in 1739 by Charles Wesley, and new pieces with the words printed on the programs handed out by volunteers including Karen Kruithof. The event would not be possible without the efforts of hundreds of volunteers, said Sandlin, many rising in the middle of the night and others providing help. He singled out the JW Marriott, the Marco Island police and fire-rescue departments, and the Madeira condominium for special mention.

And while rain fell heavily through Saturday night, Sandlin said he was pleased to report that in 32 years, the Easter Sunrise Service has never been rained out.

Rev. Thomas McCulley of New Life Community Church provided the closing message and prayer, and as the crowd streamed toward the access points, the pastors made themselves available in front of the stage for one-on-one conversations.