Monday, April 13, 2009

An Easter Service for a Non-Believer

I spend a lot of time these days in Winston-Salem, North Carolina where my boyfriend lives. Historic Old Salem is the home of the The Moravian Church in America, which continues its strong religious and cultural traditions. As one of the pacifist religions to come out of Europe in the mid 1700’s, the egalitarian and open-minded thinking of the Moravians impacted the architectural design and urban planning of Old Salem, and continues to remind us of that rich heritage today. One of the traditions that can be traced back to 1732 in Herrnhut, Saxony is the Easter Sunrise service. It has been held outdoors in Winston-Salem continuously since 1772.

I was happy to jump up at 6 am on Sunday to experience this cultural phenomenon, despite my non-believer status! The fair weather further encouraged us. The lead-up to the service actually begins around 1am in the morning when the Church band splits into groups and walks throughout the city playing chorales, partly to remind all listeners of the Resurrection, and partly to awaken people for the Sunrise Service. I heard them in the background (and this is more like a marching band, with tubas and drums) around 2:15am but managed to sleep right through their playing in front of our house after 3am.

Not doing my research ahead of time, I didn’t know that it was an outdoor service that required walking, so had brought a pretty Easter spring outfit with high heels. I was glad to learn though the night before that I could throw on sneakers, jeans and a fleece jacket and wouldn’t be out of place. John told me that up to 30,000 often attended the service which began in the town green in front of the church and then moved to “God’s Acre”, the Moravian cemetery, a few short (but hilly) blocks away. Parking was one of the major issues, but since John’s house is in town a few blocks from the town green, we had one less thing to worry about. It felt like going to a rock concert – up while it’s still dark, trying to get a good viewing spot. John told me that the service, which started at 6:30 am would finish at noon so I had no idea how I would manage standing that long, even in my sneakers. I saw others with folding chairs and thermoses which made me even more anxious.

The pulpit is set up directly at the Church’s entrance and the town green filled up quickly. But nowhere near 30,000. Still it was a lovely way to start the morning, with singing and scriptures as the sun rose behind the church. I didn’t pay too much attention to the readings, but they were definitely much simpler and less bombastic than the Catholic ones I grew up with. The gatherers were quite mixed and diverse – families, hipsters, singles, couples, dressed up in Easter finery, or ready for a hike. The minister seemed young, probably in my age range. The first half of the service lasted only about 15 minutes, and then we all walked to God’s Acre for the completion of the service.

The Graveyard – God’s Acre (adapted from the Easter Service Sunrise program)

The site for the graveyard was selected in April of 1766. The avenue bordering the graveyard was laid out in the year 1770 and the first body, that of John Birkhead, one of the eight men who first came to the settlement, was interred June 7, 1771. The Moravians still call their graveyard by the name first used by their ancestors in Bohemia. It is a “field” in which the bodies of loved ones are sown in faith as “physical bodies”, in due time to be raised as “spiritual bodies.”

One feature of God’s Acre is the use of recumbent stones, symbolizing the Moravian belief in the democracy of death and making it impossible to distinguish between the graves of rich and poor. The burial of members according to “choirs”, or station in life (married men, married women, single men, single woman, infants, etc.) rather than by families, is another distinguishing feature. In addition, it’s a chronological record.

Holy Saturday’s Flowers

Traditionally, family members, ancestors or friends place flowers on the graves on Saturday. John has been placing flowers at the graves of the two couples he feels closest to, in remembrance of his grandparents – the original owners of the house he lives in and the original owners of the house that was the first one he restored in the town. He made 4 vases out of flowers he gathered from his yard and we took them Saturday night. I found the tradition he had created touching.


We all gathered along the walks in the graveyard, with the pulpit re-established in a hollow which everyone could view. The sound was particularly well-done. It restarted just after 7am with the pink, orange and yellow stripes of the sun framing the minister with the various groupings of the band spread around the graveyard. The minister would finish a reading, then the band groups would play the songs in tandem with one another. The program ended at 7:30 and I wondered what we would do for the next 4 hours (meditate maybe like the Quakers?) but instead discovered that John had teased me and that the service was indeed only one hour, not five! My already aching lower back was glad to hear that!

I appreciated the simplicity of the service, the acknowledgment and integration of their ancestors into the program, the continuity of tradition, the relationship of the outdoors and integrating the whole city and the full weekend into the activities of the holy day. No, I’m not becoming a Moravian, but I do like their sense of democracy, equality, culture and beauty.


Brian said...

Nice blog.

Experiencing religion from a cultural context is a great way to gain a better understanding of a community. I am glad you enjoyed it.

I had the totally opposite experience as a believer totally cut off from his cultural roots this Easter.



Brad Edmondson said...

Good reporting! Thanks for the tip - I will put a short-out to the Moravians in my article.