For as long as Rusty Bradley – or anybody else at Springfield Baptist Church in Early County can remember – Easter begins before the sun comes up.
He and others will set up chairs outside, under the covered drop-off connected to the church now over 100 years old. There will be a devotional, prayer, and songs as daylight approaches the town of Jakin, tucked into this extreme southwestern corner of Georgia before continuing cross the Chattahoochee River just a few miles away and into Alabama. Afterwards, the group will go inside and enjoy the spread of Hardee's biscuits, pastries, fruit, cereal, milk, juice, and coffee.
"It's pretty laid back," says Bradley, the church's deacon chairman, "and pretty well attended with 30 or 40 people. We're a country church and usually have 90 to 100 in Sunday School."
Long a part of Easter, the sunrise service appears normally among crowd sizes of extremes, either in smaller congregations or the larger, community-sized gatherings found at Stone Mountain State Park and Callaway Gardens in Georgia as well as the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. An informal poll on The Index's Twitter account brought 64% of respondents indicating their church didn't hold a sunrise service.
According to TIME Magazine, America's first sunrise service actually predates America when a group of Moravians gathered in the pre-dawn hours in Winston-Salem, NC in 1773 one Easter. Stone Mountain's service began in 1944, when a local youth group decided to gather on the mountain to watch the sun rise on Easter morning.
Jim Duggan, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Macon, feels the sunrise service gives attendees another level of intimacy with the discovery of an empty tomb long ago. "It's more reflective," he asserts, "And an opportunity to worship in a different setting and different atmosphere."
Bellevue is an older congregation, with the service makeup reflecting it, though Duggan points out how "a pretty good cross-section of the church" attends with different ages represented. "There will probably be about a third of of the number of people at the sunrise service as there will be at the regular Easter service later that morning," he estimates.
Though the time may be a deterrent for some, Duggan tells the story of a member at his previous church, First Baptist Ty Ty, who would finish his night shift at the hospital before coming to the church's sunrise service on his way home.
Typically held outside, the Macon forecast is calling for rain. No matter, even held indoors Bellevue members will enjoy the biscuits – sausage, ham, or plain – and other fixings provided by the men's ministry along with the message and worship.
Donna Duncan will join fellow members of Oak Grove Baptist, located between Hartsfield and Moultrie, Sunday morning at the three crosses behind the church. Weather permitting, they'll get to see the sun rising behind the crosses as they sing and worship.
Duncan wears a lot of hats at Oak Grove. In addition to music director, she's special events coordinator, director of missions, church clerk, and a TeamKID teacher. About 15 years ago, she recalls, the church adjusted the Easter schedule with sunrise service at 7:30 followed by a church-wide breakfast of grits, sausage and biscuits, breakfast casseroles, fruit and "lots of cinnamon rolls." Sunday School follows at 8:30 with worship services at 9:30.
"We found that our members liked it better than leaving then coming back," she says.
In a question on The Index's Facebook page, others gave feedback on their own sunrise service.
"We have for many years at Sonoraville Baptist in Calhoun," said Senior Pastor Steve Skates.
"We have for many years [at] Bellview Baptist in Rockmart," wrote Justin Carter, pastor.
Aaron Bostic, of Swords Creek Community Baptist Church in rural southern Virginia, responded to the Facebook post that his congregation also has a sunrise service.
"Yes, we have for many years at Union Baptist Church in Pitts," responded Vicki Rhodes of the town east of Cordele.
"Yes we love sunrise at Salem Baptist Church in Lexington, GA," added Brett Mask, pastor.
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