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San Diego Easter services go online, Riverside County eases religious service restrictions amid coronavirus pandemic

Churches around San Diego held virtual services to reach those who were asked to stay home. Meanwhile, one church in Murrieta fought to have a drive-in service.

SAN DIEGO — On Sunday, many churches around San Diego County held virtual services, relying on streamlining technology to reach churchgoers who were asked to stay home. The unique Easter Sunday came after San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer urged San Diegans to celebrate Easter and Passover from home to prevent further spread of COVID-19. However, in Riverside County restrictions for churches were loosened after one church fought to have a drive-in service.

Mayor Faulconer said he believed the majority of San Diego faith organizations had adapted to the public health orders despite their impact on the holidays.

"Those traditions, of course, will be different this year, and they must be different to help keep everyone safe," Faulconer said. "COVID-19 is an equal opportunity disease that is affecting people across the globe regardless of race or religion."

On Mount Helix in La Mesa, where Christians have been celebrating a sunrise service for 95 years, a pastor streamed the service on YouTube. The amphitheater was empty on Easter for the first time since 1925, said Pastor George Runyan of City Church Ministries.

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Leaders from the local Catholic, Lutheran and Episcopal communities issued a joint message.

"During this unprecedented time in living history when the whole world is suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic, we walk with you on the journey to Easter," the message said.

Meanwhile in Riverside County, one church - 412 Murrieta - found a unique way to hold its service with a drive-in. The county allowed that type of gathering after a pastor convinced the Riverside Board of Supervisors and local leaders it could be done safely winning an exemption fo their church and others of all faiths.

"This is the holiest moment for us in the entire year. And to deny us the right to assemble together when all medical precautions were being taken - it just didn't seem right to us," Pastor Tim Thompson said. 

Doctors were at the service to ensure volunteers adhered to precautions. The church plans to continue pushing Riverside County to permanently permit drive-in services.

"We've been getting a lot of hate mail," said Thompson. "People saying that we want to kill people and we want to see people die. And it's like that's not even close to being in our hearts. One of the intrinsic things about being a Christian is our love for life."

One Lutheran church in San Diego held drive-in communions, but otherwise large gatherings like the one in Murrietta are still prohibited in San Diego.

Pastor Miles McPherson of San Diego's Rock Church said at a City Hall news conference last week that worshippers should focus on the meaning of Easter rather than the physical limitations caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

Rabbi Devorah Marcus of Temple Emanu-El in San Diego said her synagogue, like congregations of various faiths, has been streaming its services from an empty room featuring just the leader.

"At the beginning of this process, it definitely felt strange, but we have all found new ways to connect more deeply across all of the electronic media and to feel closer than ever," Marcus said.

Marcus said her congregation was referring to the current times as "sacred distancing" rather than social distancing, "which implies loneliness and isolation."

On Friday, the Campo-based Abiding Place Ministries was denied a motion for a temporary restraining order against San Diego County's public health directive to hold an Easter Sunday service.

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