God Is Their Co-Pilot

Millions of Christians will commemorate Easter this year in the traditional manner -- church services and a family meal.

But others are choosing to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ in a slightly more inventive way -- by trading a pew for a plane.

Up to 12 small aircraft carrying about 50 "prayer warriors" will take to the skies on Good Friday to pray for the entire state of Ohio, more than 11 million people.

"I'm a Christian and God is my No. 1 priority. A preacher will preach that the fields are ripe for the harvest and when you get up in an airplane at 3,000 feet up you can see a lot of fields," said 73-year-old Kenny Wortman, a founding member of PrayerFlight.

The idea for PrayerFlight took wing last September when Wortman's pastor, David McGregor, of Lima, Ohio, decided he wanted to "pray over Lima." Wortman chartered a plane and McGregor prayed over schools, hospitals, police and fire stations as he flew by.

The event was so successful they decided to do it again, except on a larger scale. "Another pilot called me and said let's do this on Good Friday. I mean what better day…every day serving God, that's my goal, so to me every day is Easter time," said Wortman.

While most Christians won't be airborne this weekend, some will rise at dawn on Sunday to attend a sunrise service. The tradition commemorates the women who, according to Christian doctrine, came to Jesus' tomb at first light and discovered he had risen from the dead.

For the past 86 years, the Hollywood Bowl has been the site of one of the largest sunrise services in the country. Thousands of people gather in the middle of the night waiting for the gates to open at 3:30 a.m. Producer Norma Foster describes an appropriately Hollywood-kind of spectacle with about 700 people on stage, including 150 children who form a "living" cross.

The musicians and choir are surrounded by thousands of Easter lilies and the service ends with a mass release of white birds. Celebrities have played a role over the years including Shirley Jones, Mickey Rooney and Angie Dickinson. "I've been producing this for 18 years now. I've seen third-generation families come and sing in the choir. It just makes you want to cry," said Foster.

On a more rustic note, in Stowe, Vt., Minister Bruce Comiskey of the Stowe Community Church, will preside over his 20th sunrise service at the top of Mount Mansfield.

Parishioners ride to the summit in a gondola. Comiskey will stand on a picnic table wearing a ski jacket and gloves and offer an abbreviated seven-minute sermon to an expected crowd of over 1,000 people.

"If it's a good snow year, we get a lot of snowboarders and skiers," said Comiskey. "The challenge is to get them to stay around for the sermon and not take a run in the middle of it."

But on Easter Sunday the sports take a back seat to the spirit at 4,000 feet.

"Many, many religious traditions from Muslims to Christian seek high places as holy. Many people try to make their way to high ground because they feel closer to God. Sometimes when we get a glimpse of the sun, I just have people turn around because that's really what they came for," said Comiskey.

Over the years, secular traditions have joined sacred ones in America as Easter celebrations have evolved. Eastre (or "Ostara"), a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility, was often associated with a rabbit or hare. And German immigrants are said to have brought over the tradition of a bunny named "Oschter Haws" who would leave colored eggs for children. And so the tradition of the Easter bunny and an egg hunt became firmly associated with Easter weekend.

But the mix of the nonreligious symbols with a religious holiday can be difficult to negotiate. Last month in Rhode Island a school administrator banned the Easter bunny from a craft sale at a school, citing a desire to be "sensitive to all religions."

The Easter bunny had to go through an identity change before being allowed back in as Peter Rabbit.

"The Easter Bunny is not a religious symbol but because the word bunny is attached to the word Easter he wanted to get rid of it. This is the kind of thing that drives people crazy," said Rhode Island State Rep. Richard Singleton. He filed a state bill to protect the names of all religious symbols from the Easter bunny to the Christmas tree to the Menorah.

"Why can't we protect all of our traditions?" asked Singleton.

Meanwhile, as the sun rises this Easter weekend, some holiday traditions will still flourish from Vermont to Ohio to Hollywood, the Easter bunny included.