Black Churches Host Easter Sunday Service Portrays Jesus’ Resurrection at Maryland Cemetery’s Replica Tomb

Andre Roberson, center, portrays a resurrected Jesus in a rehearsal for an Easter sunrise service on April 17, 2019 at King Memorial Park in Baltimore County, Md. Angels are portrayed by Lou “Lufty” Mandhiry, left, and Stacey Maith, right. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Just before he started practicing his exit from a replica of Jesus’ tomb, Andre Roberson admitted that, at first, playing the key role in a cemetery’s dramatization of the resurrection was just “something to do.”

Now, as he prepared to don an Afro wig and play Jesus for the fourth time at King Memorial Park’s Easter Sunday Sunrise Service, the annual observance has taken on more meaning.

“Once you do it and you actually start to see the expression on people’s faces, see how they really get into it, it brings delight to it,” said the grave digger at the African-American-owned cemetery northeast of Baltimore.

For the fifth year, a crowd of hundreds is expected to wind through the hairpin-turn country road leading to the cemetery named for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Each year a different predominantly black Baltimore church is invited to host the service, said Erich March, president of the cemetery that was founded in 1973. Once they arrive before dawn, worshippers are seated in folding chairs in view of the replica of Jesus’ tomb that March constructed with grave diggers on his staff in 2012.

March said that the service and the replica of Jesus’ tomb fit the needs of his cemetery’s customers.

Rolling away the stone on Christ’s tomb during the
Easter Sunrise Service re-enactment at King Memorial
Park in 2016, in Baltimore County, Md. Photo by Nathan
Malloy

“We cater to Christians predominantly,” said March of the cemetery that primarily serves Baltimore’s African-American community. “It’s just appropriate to have icons or features within a cemetery that represent the faith of those that are interred there.”

The cemetery also serves the local Muslim community and has a staff from diverse backgrounds.

March, a Catholic, said he researched what an ancient tomb looked like in Jesus’ day. Then he called on some of the same people who helped him create the replica — a polyurethane structure covered in concrete — to find their inner thespians once a year.

On Wednesday (April 17), the groundskeepers took their places for a rehearsal. They had rolled the stone to close the tomb containing Roberson so they could roll it away before he practiced his exit.

March, dressed in jeans and a blue outdoor puffy vest, took on the role of director, a can of orange spray paint in one hand and a walkie-talkie in the other. He used the paint to mark the spots where the two members of his crew posing as centurions guarding the tomb were to stand holding shields and spears. He warned them that they’d be standing for quite a while as the crowd gathers before the big moment.

Erich March, president of King Memorial Park in
Baltimore County, Md., directs a rehearsal on April 17,
2019, of his cemetery’s annual dramatization of the
resurrection of Jesus at an Easter sunrise service.
Behind him is Leon Johnson, who portrays a centurion.
RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

March called out orders to the cast in their brown work uniforms about slowing their steps to extend the dramatic atmosphere.

“Everything half time,” he said as they prepared for yet another run-through. “Jesus, you too. The more suspense the better.”

The two angels, the two guards and Jesus have no speaking parts. The only sounds are produced by a hired engineer who plays recorded music evoking thunder and lightning as Jesus appears after the angels roll the stone away. A smoke machine pumps out white smoke from the tomb, and special lights flash behind him as he emerges.

Before Roberson got his turn to practice, March reviewed how the two cast members playing guards for the first time are supposed to drop to one knee as the staffers portraying angels touch them on their shoulders. The four had to coordinate their movements before the angels shifted to their task of opening the tomb, gently stepping over blooming daffodils to reach the large round stone.

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Source: Religion News Service