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NC Moravians mark 240 years of Easter service

By Tom Breen
Associated Press / April 8, 2012
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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.—As the sun rose Sunday on an old Moravian cemetery in North Carolina, 310 musicians with trumpets, tubas and trombones played in unison while thousands sang, "Hallelujah, praise the Lord" in an Easter scene mostly unchanged since before the Revolutionary War.

The Moravian churches in Winston-Salem -- a city famous for tobacco, higher education and Krispy Kreme doughnuts -- celebrated Easter at sunrise for the 240th time, a streak unbroken by rain, freezing temperatures or the Civil War.

"To have 8,000 to 10,000 people come together like this in a worshipful atmosphere is just remarkable," said I.B. Southerland, a Moravian church member who organized and deployed about 160 ushers who keep the overflow crowds moving through the narrow streets and paths of the cemetery known as God's Acre.

It's one of the oldest and possibly the largest such ceremony in the U.S. It starts well before dawn for the members of the Moravian Church, whose ancestors settled here in the 18th century, concentrated in a part of the city now called Old Salem, with brick sidewalks and colonial buildings.

Each day of Easter Week the Moravians have a distinctive church service, culminating in the weekend that sees hundreds of members cleaning and decorating the distinctive gravestones, whose uniformity symbolizes the equality of believers before God.

It's Sunday morning, though, that really sets this celebration apart. Brass bands assemble at Moravian churches across the city shortly after midnight, and at 1:45 a.m. they all play "Sleepers, Awake," before setting off on a two-hour circuit of their neighborhoods, stopping to play hymns and chorales on street corners and familiar landmarks.

"This is the best day of the year," Andrew Halverson, who directs the brass band at Ardmore Moravian Church, told his musicians before they headed out into the early morning darkness. "Easter is the best time of year, for so many reasons."

The brass bands are a crucial component of Moravian worship, and the first one was organized in the 18th century, with six members. Today, nearly 400 are on the official membership roll, but not all of them make it to the Easter service.

The church bands have been making the same routes for decades, and tend to stick with them regardless of what may change: one band stops every year and plays at the site of what was once a bustling hotel, but today is a parking garage.

"Moravians are stuck on tradition," said Dick Joyce, 62, who started playing trumpet in the brass bands as a 12-year-old. "It worked 240 years ago, so we keep doing it."

The bands played to mostly quiet streets. One irate homeowner stormed over to protest that he had just put his 2-year-old child to bed, but calmed down after an explanation from the band's police escort.

"One guy followed us all the way back to the church one year to yell at us," Halverson said.

After all the bands made their rounds, they converged on the Moravian Home Church in Old Salem to eat breakfast around 4 a.m. and prepare for the sunrise service. By 6:15, a huge crowd had gathered to hear the Rev. John Jackman step out on a bare platform and announce, "The Lord is risen," responding, "The Lord is risen indeed."

After more prayers and hymns, the crowd moved down the narrow streets to the cemetery.

"It's a really special year for us, because my mother joined those saints in May," said John Foltz, pointing to the graves in God's Acre. "This is our first Easter without her."

Although other Moravian churches have been holding sunrise services for longer, none is quite the production of the Winston-Salem event, which was broadcast to American troops during World War II, earning the town the sobriquet "Easter City." The ceremony is still broadcast live on local radio, a staple of local life since 1930.

Moravians first came to North Carolina in the 18th century, when believers began arriving in the American colonies. The Moravian Church itself, while a Protestant denomination, actually predates the Reformation by decades. It was formed in 1457 by followers of the Czech religious reformer Jan Hus, who protested what he saw as flaws in the Roman Catholic Church.

The celebration Sunday would be recognizable to Moravians in those distant colonial days, Jackman said. The only major difference is that the liturgy is now in English instead of German, a change that took place about 100 years ago.

A convert to the church, Jackman grew up about 100 miles to the east in Raleigh, and remembers attending a Moravian Easter ceremony as a child with his family. The experience -- the bands, the crowd, the silent procession to the cemetery, the prayers to Jesus as the sun rose over the horizon -- left a deep impression on him.

"That experience is one of the reasons why I was attracted to the Moravian Church," he said. "It really is a remarkable experience unlike anything else."

The Easter service also plays an important role in cementing generation bonds in a church that, despite its long history, has fewer than a million adherents today. The musicians, ushers and people who clean the graves at God's Acre on Saturday range in age from children to retired people, in some cases with three generations playing together in the same band.

"I've been with the bands for 27 years, and I'm one of the newbies," said Nola Reed Knouse, assistant band director for the service. "We're very aware that this is a tradition that goes to every Moravian."

The service is complex for the musicians, who start out separately, form together, split up again and then join together once and for all at the graveside service. As the crowd of thousands made its way from Salem Square to God's Acre, the bands took up strategic positions throughout the cemetery, playing in a call-and-response pattern that Knouse jokingly calls "Moravian surround sound."

"I know there are some churches that try to replicate this kind of service," Joyce said after the sun had risen and the crowd was slowly walking home. "But you can't replicate the feeling that comes with walking the same streets our ancestors walked 240 years ago."



Moravian Church in North America:

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