For the first time in my life I wouldn’t be in church on Easter Sunday. I’d promised my husband, George, that I would go camping with him and some of our friends that weekend in April to celebrate his birthday. It didn’t even cross my mind that it might be Easter.
Only later did I realize my mistake, too late to cancel the trip. That’s all right, I told myself. You go to church every Sunday. You can take this Sunday off.
But now I kept thinking of what I would be missing. Organ music ringing from the rafters, the sweet smell of Easter lilies at the altar, our friends dressed in their spring best, all of us repeating the ancient refrain: “He is risen, he is risen indeed.”
I kept replaying Easter memories: hunting colored eggs in the backyard with my brother as a child, driving five hours home from college to attend church with my parents, posing my children in their new outfits for the annual photo.
Even now when it was just George and me, empty nesters, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in our packed church, Easter was special. I felt guilty about not celebrating.
As soon as we got to Cades Cove Campground, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I hurried to the welcome station to ask the ranger if she knew of any groups holding Easter services.
“Not that I’ve heard,” she said.
“What about the churches in Cades Cove?”
The ranger frowned. “If they are, no one’s told us,” she said, shaking her head as if I’d asked an odd question.
Cades Cove is one of the most popular spots in the park. Every year almost two million visitors travel its 11-mile loop by car, foot or bicycle, to catch a glimpse of not just the wildlife in the area—the white-tailed deer, coyotes, wild turkey, red foxes, even the occasional black bear, symbol of the Great Smoky Mountains—but also its historical roots.
The first settlers came to Cades Cove in the 1820s. They cleared, plowed and planted the land. They built log cabins and barns and mills that sheltered and sustained them and their descendants for over a hundred years.
When the land was purchased to make a national park in the 1930s, these settlers’ families moved away. The preserved buildings remain, including Cades Cove’s three old churches.
I went back to our campsite. We played Scrabble and had campfire hot dogs for lunch. “Who’s up for a bike ride through Cades Cove?” I asked.
“I’d love to, Jennie.” “Sure.” “Count me in.” We headed off to the village. I pulled over at stop number four on the self-guided tour: the Primitive Baptist church. Maybe someone had posted a notice for a service? Nope. Same with stop number five, the Methodist church. And stop number seven, the Missionary Baptist church.
I’d struck out. There would be no Easter service for me this year.
Sunday morning I awoke at dawn to a heavy fog. George was still asleep and none of our friends were stirring. I scrawled a note, put it next to the coffeepot, grabbed my bike and pedaled to Cades Cove. “Morning,” I said to the ranger who was just unlocking the gate. “Happy Easter!”
The new grass in the meadow was fresh with dew. White dogwood blossoms dotted the woods. A doe and her fawn stared at me through the mist.
Three miles in, I came to the charming little Cades Cove Methodist Church. Built in 1902, the white clapboard building had a sheet-metal roof and a simple bell tower. It had two doors, one for men and one for women, and both were open.
I slipped inside. Three dozen pews, a massive wooden pulpit and, in the corner, an ancient piano. An Easter service should start with a hymn, I thought. I’m not much of a pianist and I only know one hymn by heart.
I sat down and haltingly picked out the notes: “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love…” Then I stepped up to the pulpit, where I found a worn leather Bible.
“God bless everyone who opens this book,” a note read. I turned the yellowed pages to Luke’s gospel and read the account of the Resurrection, how the women came to the tomb on the third day, shocked to discover it empty.
There in that empty church, their surprise and bewilderment registered even more with me. I read aloud what the angels said to them: “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen…”
I looked up. A young couple with three small children stood in one of the doorways.
The dad took off his hat. “Excuse me,” he said. “We heard the piano. Are you having Easter here today?”
Was I? Easter had come to me all on its own: the blooming dogwoods, the deer, the new grass, the music, the lesson and, now, others to share it with. Christ had risen and was alive—for the women at the tomb, for me, for us. “Yes,” I said. “Come on in.”
I stayed at the pulpit and read the Easter story from Luke out loud, then the daughter suggested her favorite hymn, “Jesus Loves Me.” The mom asked if she could lead us in prayer and we all bowed our heads. “Thank you, God, for Easter and new friends.” “Amen,” we said.
We walked out of the church into the warm spring sun, a day bright with the promise of Easter.
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