BREWER, Maine — People will not simply park their cars and stroll with their families into Second Congregational Church on South Main Street on Sunday afternoon.
They will park a few blocks away, making sure that no one is following them. They will stand alone in the parking lot until someone slowly opens a door at the back of the building and signals that the coast is clear and it is safe to enter.
Once inside the 104-year-old structure, they will be in not just a darkened church basement, but in the home of a Christian in Eritrea, in northeast Africa. There will be no Bibles and no hymnals. There will be only flashlights shared by worshippers. A lookout will remain on guard in case the police come to break up the service and, possibly, arrest worshippers.
The Brewer church will hold the unusual 4 p.m. service to observe the Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, marked officially on Nov. 8. Second Congregational is marking the day a little late because of a scheduling conflict.
“We have the idea here in the United States that church is something you can go to at will, that it will always be there,” said the Rev. Richard Hyman, pastor of the church. “People [in other countries] literally risk their lives to worship. We want to give people an awareness of that situation.”
The congregation chose to hold a worship service in a way similar to those held in nations where Christians are persecuted. Two years ago, worshippers pretended to be in Iran. This year, they will be in Eritrea.
The country of 4.9 million is located on the Red Sea in northeastern Africa. Once a part of Ethiopia, Eritrea in 2002 outlawed all religious groups other than Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Lutheran Christians and followers of Islam. Since then, according to Open Doors, an international nonprofit ministry that supports persecuted Christians in more than 45 countries worldwide, many Eritrean Christians in different denominations have been arrested and tortured.
In October 2008, a campaign of mass arrest brought the number held in police stations, military camps, metal shipping containers and jail to nearly 3,000, according to the organization based in California. None has been charged or given access to the judicial process.
Fifteen Eritrean Orthodox monks were arrested in July, the Dutch office of Open Doors reported, allegedly for their plans to publicize the government’s interference in the affairs of their church. Further information about their fate was not available Friday.
Eritrea is No. 9 in Open Doors’ list of 10 nations in which Christians are persecuted for practicing their faith.
Some worshippers at Sunday’s service in Brewer will be assigned roles to play, Hyman said. One may portray a man whose brother, also a Christian, has disappeared suddenly. Another may be a mother whose son has been pressed into military service.
“We have the names of people who are in these kinds of situations and we will pray for them,” the minister said, “but we will be doing something that is illegal in some parts of the world. We will be on our guard. We will try to experience a bit of what they do.”
The service will be held at 4 p.m. Sunday at Second Congregational Church, 607 South Main St., Brewer. For information, call 989-7930.