The sun was supposed to rise at around 6 Sunday morning. Instead darkness greeted the roughly 100 to 200 people assembled at the top of McGroarty Peak in Tujunga for the 83rd annual Sunland-Tujunga Kiwanis Community Easter Sunrise Service. But the darkness was more than made up for by the positive, charismatic and prayerful atmosphere among those gathered at the dusty peak.
Some hiked, others took shuttle vans, one man bicycled to the top of the hill overlooking the Sunland-Tujunga-Crescenta Valley. To the west, the twinkling lights of the San Fernando Valley stretched as far as the eye could see, thanks to a clear, warm morning. To the north and east, the San Gabriel Mountains traced an outline against the purplish sky, visible thanks to a full moon setting. The faintest hint of sunlight made itself evident over Mt. Wilson as the service began with music from the Verdugo Hills Church band and an invocation from Pastor John Smyser of New Hope Community Church in Tujunga.
The service is sponsored by the Sunland-Tujunga Kiwanis and officiated by pastors from the eight-church Verdugo Hills Ministerial Association.
On the peak, lights illuminate a large, stone cross. The cross on clear days and nights can be seen from Sunland and Tujunga. Visitors to the peak must drive up narrow roads adjacent to Hillhaven Avenue in Tujunga. The cross itself is reached after a 15 to 20 minute hike along a fire road.
It’s was not a difficult journey, really. Whether they hiked, biked or drove up the hill, many considered it a triumph just to be gathered with everyone else at the peak. The warm conditions helped a bit, although some faithful were in their winter attire. Think of the sunrise service as a charismatic, religious event moved several hundred feet into the air and replaced with a dusty floor, rocks and chaparral. As the band played well-known Christian tunes as “The Happy Song,” people raised their hands into the air in adoration, sang along with the band, tapped their feet, or just looked around at the sights.
“I can see my house from here,” said band guitarist Dale Sebastian, who with his band got lost on the way up. “I didn’t even know all these houses existed up here. Once you’re up here, it’s so beautiful. I appreciate where we live more and more.”
The guitarist did not get any sleep, as he worked on the music for the service all night. His Apple laptop seamlessly created the illusion of a full band for each song.
“We try to go with celebratory stuff since people are tired,” said singer Arthur Williams. “We want to wake them up a little bit.” Of sleep, the singer did not get any — he worked on his music all night.
“[People] are wanting to dance,” said singer Mary Becker.
“The best part is the sunrise,” said Kiwanis member Joe Duardo, who along with colleague Bonnie McDougall were at the trail head at 4 a.m. At this elevation, the only sound at the trail head in the pre-dawn darkness was crickets and the faint sounds of instruments hinting at the celebrations beginning above.
“It’s a blessing to get up here,” said Community Christian Church Deacon James Loebs, his van and passengers rocking back and forth as it traveled on the uneven dirt road leading up to McGroarty Peak.
For Greg Amundson, this Easter Sunday was his first year serving coffee and doughnuts on the peak with his chapter of Christian motorcycle club Harley-Davidson Sons of God, based out of Community Christian Church in Tujunga.
“People seem to be enjoying themselves, and I hope they preach a good message,” said Amundson.
The chapter has been volunteering their time at the sunrise service for the last four years.
“We’re a Christian motorcycle club, and we just want to give back to the community,” said Sons of God Vice President Greg Glick. “We’re looking forward to maybe someone getting saved. Possibly we can plant a seed to invite someone to church with us or to any of the churches that are participating.”
“The Spirit lets you enjoy the music and the service,” said Rosie K. Angulo, an Apache-Yaqui-Chumash Native American, who had visited the peak at Easter three times.
At the Ananda Ashrama in La Crescenta, the smell of sweet incense engulfed the courtyard outside the main temple. Light only came from candles surrounding a small altar at the back of the temple. The morning sun cast shadows over the courtyard, and morning birds chirped, giving the scene a serene, peaceful atmosphere.
In the courtyard, minister Anita Rodman was wrapping up the Easter sunrise service. For many, the service offered a deeper view of Easter and what it means to be closer to Jesus and his divinity.
“For me, being devoted to Jesus is Bhakti Yoga,” said Ashrama member Dhanya after the service, who chose to be identified by her spiritual name. “When you’re devoted to Jesus and Mary, you’re practicing that Bhaktian, and through Jesus we have union with the divine, because yoga means yolk or union.”
In the Sanskrit, Bhakti means devotion which, Dhanya says, is personal, something that is particularly practiced at Christmas and Easter.
The cornerstone of the Vedanta philosophy, which is what the Ananda Ashrama is founded upon, is a deeper connection with and observation that there are many paths to the divine and that “you honor all of those pathways,” said Rodman.
“In our tradition, whether we are celebrating Passover or celebrating Easter, we look at it through the lens of Vedanta, which brings deep insight into the meaning of all of these celebrations.”
“We are divine. We are divine beings, and we need to wake up to that divinity within us. Jesus reminds us of that,” said Dhanya.
“What I found here was a connection with Christ outside of the normal window that we might find,” said Tim Sheldon, who attended Sunday’s service. “We have a pre-packaged notion of what Easter is. It’s always the same stories and the same songs and the same approach to a story that is ancient and eternal.”
Unfortunately, Rodman says, some people view this intimacy with the divine from a literal perspective, believing that human limitations prevent us from becoming closer, creating a void which is “unnecessary.” “This is an unlimited thing,” Rodman said. “Christ’s manifestation to Earth is not something that ended, it’s a consistent ongoing spirit and presence. That’s what we want to connect with. His spirit rises and He never leaves the earth.”
Ultimately, Rodman adds, it’s not about His ascension, it’s about the call for us to wake up and ascend to our inner divinity. “That’s kind of the message of His life.”
“What I find here is that call to wake up and that call to arise within that I hadn’t heard any place else before,” said Sheldon.