Behind the Scenes of Holy Week & Easter at Davies

Photographs by Dale Tan


photo by Dale Tan

Q&A with Karl Digerness

As we look ahead to Holy Week, the week of the church calendar that begins with Palm Sunday and culminates in Easter, we thought it would be fun to talk with Karl Digerness, whose work behind the scenes with the rest of the Worship Arts and operations team makes this week possible.

It seems like a lot of Holy Week just sort of comes together, but with five different worship services, I’m not sure that’s how you would describe it. How do you and your team prepare for Holy Week, especially when it comes to music?

photo by Dale Tan A lot of writing, rehearsing, and arranging goes into it. For Easter in particular, there’s always a desire to have songs that have a touchpoint for people who may not have been to church in a long time—”Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” is a great hymn, and a lot of people know it. We also want to use songs that we as City Church are familiar with. So if I’m trying to introduce a new song at Easter, it will need to show up in Epiphany, so people can be easily engaged with it.

There is a new song for offering this year that I’m writing right now. Minna will be writing a lot of the choral parts. Rehearsals start two weeks out with just the band, and the choir starts next week, with 6 or 7 total rehearsals before Easter. There’s also an orchestra rehearsal later on in the day after the Good Friday service. Minna writes a lot of the music that gets played by the orchestra.

One thing we are looking forward to is, in a sense, premiering this song from the 1970s. It was arranged by Gavin Bryars, and it’s called “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.” It’s a loop of a homeless person in London singing a hymn, and as far as we know, this will be the first time the song has been performed in San Francisco, or even on the West Coast. It’s a beautiful song.

What can I expect out of the Easter service at City Church? And why do we hold it at Davies Symphony Hall?

In every service, but especially those more culturally present ones—like Christmas and Easter-—we work pretty hard to make sure that people walk into a welcoming, engaging environment. We’re really intentional about the music and the environment and the language that’s used up front, the way that we preach, the materials that are put together. It’s never perfect, but there’s an intentionality there. We try to be intentional in making Easter at City Church a safe place to bring your friends, especially on a day when so many people come to church who wouldn’t otherwise go.

Several years ago, it got to a point where we weren’t really able to do that well at the Russian Center because there were so many people showing up. At that time, we were having three services on that Sunday. We can seat around 550 people in the Russian Center without breaking the fire code. Last year on Easter we had 1400 adults, and over 150 kids, so we’re talking over 1500 people. That would mean each of those three services would have to be perfectly evenly distributed, which is rare — going to church at 8:30 isn’t always easy. So staying at the Russian Center was antithetical to the idea of being intentional about making this an easy, safe space to invite people to.

We want to all be together on Easter. So the question became, what space could we have that would allow us to be able to welcome people well? We did the due diligence, and there are very, very few rooms in the city that can hold over 1.000 that also have space for kids. The Nourse seats 1,600, but has no auxiliary space for kids. Herbst seats 900. Trying to park at Masonic is tough. So you start trying to figure out spaces, and Davies is one of the few that can house us in one service, has space for kids, and surprisingly, is the least expensive compared to our other options

Holding the Easter service at Davies is also just a great fit with our style. With the gifts that we have—with Minna and Magik*Magik Orchestra, it’s a great place to showcase what they do. We aren’t beholden to it in any way, but for now, with the people we’re able to welcome on Easter combined with our current style of worship and music, it’s a good fit. We’re able to do things there that we couldn’t do at the Russian Center, like last year when we had the Girls Choir and the Boys Choir.

For Easter, it would be way easier logistically to stay at the Russian Center. We’re there until 9 or 10 pm packing up sound stuff on Saturday night. All of the children’s ministry stuff is packed up. The communion table and font, all the communion elements, all get packed up. That is not worth it in any way, shape, or form, if it was just about being at Davies. The only way that it’s worth all the work we put into it is that it enables us to welcome people well and encounter God in worship.

How does this plan fit in with not just Easter but all of Holy Week?

The intention we put into Davies is the same as every Holy Week service. They are very distinct and different—it’s not like Easter is a repeat of the others throughout the week. They take you through part of the journey that Jesus went through during Holy Week. For me, just showing up at Easter is a little like showing up for the last 15 minutes of a great movie. There’s a backstory. It gives power to the end—when you know the backstory, there’s a power and weight that you get.

As someone who works a lot on designing the Easter Sunday service, how do you want people to feel when it is over?

I would want people to leave feeling that they experienced the presence of God in some way, through the music or a person they met or the sermon. And hopefully the Easter service would be a door to further connection to City Church and community, that visitors would come to another service or join a group—to feel that City Church is a safe place to engage the spiritual journey.

Also, Easter is a celebration. It’s the high point—we celebrate the resurrection every Sunday, but this is kind of the pinnacle moment celebration. It is special. We as a staff are working really hard to be intentional about that service, so I think it’s a great opportunity for our attendees to be intentional about who they can bring. We have worked to tee everything up to remove all the barriers that we can—service times are appropriate, there are seats for everyone, parking is accessible—we work really hard to be intentional about making it easy to bring your friends. We hope that people would feel like they can do that, and like they are able to celebrate together.

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Photographs by Dale Tan