GARDINER — Like churchgoers around the world, more than 100 area residents rose early on Sunday morning and made their way to the banks of the Kennebec River for a sunrise service marking the rise of Jesus and the start of Easter.

The sun itself kept a low profile during the service, hidden behind clouds as pastors from several area churches led the group in scripture readings and hymns, to the accompaniment of a guitar.

But with few people or cars out at 6:30 a.m., when the service started, there was still plenty of early spring scenery for the churchgoers to relish: the ice flowes drifting out to Merrymeeting Bay, the seagulls, geese and other birds swooping overhead.

For more than 50 years, Norine Leathers, a parishioner at Highland Avenue United Methodist Church, has been coming to sunrise services with her husband, Sonny, and a growing number of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This year, she spotted a bald eagle during the event.

“I feel closer to the outdoors,” she said of the setting, Gardiner’s Waterfront Park. “It’s just the nature — it’s beautiful.”

The annual gathering was organized by several area churches and sponsored by the Gardiner Area Ministers Association, and it would be followed by regular services and breakfasts in all of their congregations. It was one of many sunrise services that happened around Maine.

It included a skit by the Rev. Ted Chaffee, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Gardiner, and one of the churchgoers, Shantel Walsh.

In the skit, Chaffee donned a red bandanna and a walking stick and played ignorant about the meaning of Easter. Standing behind a podium that had been brought to the park, he challenged Walsh about the statement “Christ is risen,” asserting that “Christ has risen” would be more grammatically correct and reciting Shakespeare to prove it.

“I’m not much on this ‘faith’ hooey-balooey,” he said.

But Walsh pushed back, saying that Christ was “forever” rising in people’s hearts and minds.

“You, little lady, are pretty good with faith,” Chaffee said at the end, after a change of heart.

The sermon was delivered by the Rev. Kathleen Decker-Szakas, the pastor at Highland Avenue United Methodist Church, who pointed to a part of the scripture that describes two women realizing that Christ has risen after finding his tomb empty.

That discovery induced awe and confusion in the women, just as challenges nowadays — opioid and alcohol addiction, poverty — can overwhelm the community, Decker-Szakas said.

“We can feel like problems are too great,” she said.

But, she continued, it’s important for the community to respond that need, whether it be through food pantries, community suppers, or programs that send food home with underprivileged children.

“We need to bear witness to the power of god who can’t be kept down by death,” she said. “We need to confront things that … hold us back.”

That message stuck with Norine Leathers, who belongs to Decker-Szakas’ church.

“Her message is on point,” she said of the pastor’s sermon, after the service had ended and many attendees had left for their church breakfasts. “We need to show up and help.”

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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