This year’s Easter Service will be held at Washington Mystic Stadium which will hold 3,600 in order to reach as many members as possible. Joyce Garrett, Director of Music, says this is a major, major MAJOR undertaking. “All of the different stakeholders in the church including music, worship, AV, communications , security and culinary have been meeting weekly by zoom for weeks to coordinate the planning. But we do it, and it goes without a hitch because of so much planning.”
But the good news according to Senior Pastor Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley is that they have done this before and it is like riding a bike. But still he acknowledges the logistics make it a huge effort. Wesley says he has been working on his sermon since Lent began although ideas start to flow a year in advance. Planning has to begin before Lent because he plans to have a cohesive structure and the last six Sundays are all a lead in to what this Sunday will be and will proclaim. It is all coordinated with music and message.
He says the big challenge of Easter is that you have a specific set of Biblical passages to work with. “The whole Bible isn’t open. I like to use it to remind people of the foundation of our faith, that Christ died and was resurrected.” Wesley doesn’t believe Easter is a time for creative innovation, but a reminder of truths. “There are so many messages that could come out of the Easter message to impact our daily lives. You could take the perspective of the person who looks in the darkness of the tomb and is depressed and grieving with no hope. But a belief that things will change.
“I like to say when it looks like God isn’t good that means he isn’t done.”
Garrett says 450 volunteers are involved in the event which involves a number of details. “For instance, we have 130 choir robes to be arranged on a rack with each person’s name and transported to the venue.” They have found a lift for one of the choir members who is in a wheelchair and can’t walk up the bleachers. The greeters and ushers will have to know what to do and the deacons will have to decide how to pass out communion.
“Since Covid, we have the bread and juice in a plastic ziplock.” A hundred details.
The culinary team is preparing snacks for 450 volunteers for the dress rehearsal on Saturday that will begin at 8 a.m. and run until 4 pm. Then they will be preparing 450 breakfast sandwiches for Sunday morning for the volunteers who need to be there at 8 a.m.
Alton and Pat Wallace, members of the church since 1983 and long-time church leaders, will be leaving for the Easter service on a 7:30 a.m. bus for volunteers. They say they will be wearing their black uniforms and manning a section in the arena for communion. “Our two daughters and son-in-law and two grandsons will be at the service. Our grandsons are in the choir and doing everything at the church their mothers did.”
The Wallaces say they came to the church as young parents who needed a church for their children’s sake. Their neighbor invited them to Alfred Street Baptist Church and they immediately got a sense of home like their church in North Carolina. “It was the music we were used to; we just loved it. The children’s activities were outstanding and they flourished there.”
Since then Pat has led successful Girl Scout troops for many years doing things she thought she would never do (camping) as well as been co-chair of the year-long Bicentennial celebration as well as other large events and a member of the Foundation Board and a deacon. “You know when you do something they like, they just put you in charge of the next thing.”
Alton was also ordained a deacon shortly after he joined the church and since he was so young they were worried that he wasn’t old enough to have sinned enough and been forgiven enough to really understand.
He went on to be President of the Foundation Board and to establish the mission of giving poor but smart kids a scholarship. “That had been me growing up on a tobacco farm and my scholarship got everything started that led to my success.” He also helped set up a Military Ministry, rewrite the church constitution several times and write a history of the church for the Bicentennial Celebration. “I am a math guy and I thought people just took history in college because they couldn’t do numbers.”
This year the church has invited Benita Jones, a guest soloist from Atlanta, to lead the Praise and Worship which will be the first half of the Easter service. “We will have to practice with her because she hasn’t been here. “The choir will be going over the background music.”
Garrett says, “We have combined our five adult choirs for the Easter service. This was my biggest challenge — wondering whether I would get the choir I needed due to the pandemic.” She sent out a request “And sure enough they did respond.”
She said another challenge was planning exactly the right music. “When you do that every year, it’s hard to top that the next year.” She finally decided on, “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” It will be accompanied by their orchestra but she wanted a more varied repertoire so the choir will join in for two verses and then put some emphasis and end with a big bang. She says when she is coming up with her program she just imagines what she would like to hear. “Imagination can take you places.”
They will have 40 orchestra players on the stage with the artist and her background players, then room for the dancers when the artist leaves and the choir can sing. Garrett says she knows the service will fill up and unfortunately not everybody will be able to attend so they plan to send out a communication over the website so people won’t come and be turned away.
Garrett has been at the church since 1979 when they were in the old building. “We had 30 devoted singers who never missed a rehearsal. Back in the day gospel was still a novelty, ‘a thing’ and they opened the score on an Easter cantata and just sang through the booklet. Now the church also has a bell choir, liturgical dancers, an adult and a youth orchestra, five adult choirs as well as children’s and teen choirs
Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley says that preaching to 3,600 people means he probably can’t see their faces. “But I know my members and I go out and shake hands and make a connection ahead.” He says he will hear some Amens or see some gestures in the dynamic response style characteristic of the Black church. This conversational style is what distinguishes Black churches. He says, “Some people don’t like this large setting; others love it.” He says sadly they will have to turn people away for the Easter service but it is very difficult to find venues for a church that hold 5-7,000.
Wesley says when he arrived in 2008 the church membership was 2,500; now it is over 12,000. He said a lot of these members came during the pandemic, and 15-20 percent of the members are virtual but want to be part of the church. “We have 300 members in both Philadelphia and Richmond, and LA is a big center, too.”
Wesley says he thinks there are so many factors behind the growth including the church’s focus on mission and philosophy and giving to the local and national community. Wesley says the church gives ten percent of everything they raise to outside the church for needs in the community. “We gave nearly $4 million last year.”
He says with the growth came a number of challenges requiring drastic changes in administration, multiple church services and emphasis on children and youth. “Families come here and they want their children to get the same faith experience.” The staff grew from 12 to 98. “We are the largest employer of Black people in Alexandria.”
But he thinks a lot of it is because “we have a sweet spirit and kind relationships and love and we are open to everyone.”
And, “we want to be sure that the person who just shows up has a good experience. We support customer service.” That’ll be no small task for 3,600 worshipers on Easter Day.