On any other Sunday, the Niebrugge family would be in the pews for the morning service at Metro Church in Winter Springs.
But this being Easter Sunday, they got up at 4 a.m. and drove through the darkness and the drizzle to find their seats, along with 7,000 others, in SeaWorld Orlando’s Bayside Stadium. They had been here before, as season pass holders, but never to participate in the ritual of witnessing the sun rise in remembrance of Christ’s resurrection.
It was misty so Tammy Niebrugge, her 12-year-old daughter Hope, and six-year-old son Bryce wore plastic rain ponchos with Mickey Mouse on the back — which on any other day would be blasphemy inside SeaWorld.
“We should be nice to each other, especially today,” said Ken Niebrugge, the father.
His other son, 8-year-old Brendan, was wearing the No. 15 jersey of Tim Tebow with the secret hope that the legendary Florida Gator quarterback might make a surprise appearance with his parents, Bob and Pam Tebow, as the scheduled speakers for the service.
This was unlikely, his parents cautioned him, but just in case Ken carried a Tim Tebow football card inside a plastic baggie in the right front pocket of his shirt.
So on this Easter Sunday, in an amusement park stadium celebrating a Christian holiday with the parents of a celebrity athlete, the holy trinity of American culture came together: religion, sports and entertainment.
Jesus, Tebow and Shamu.
In her message to the Easter Sunday worshippers, Pam Tebow recounted the miraculous birth of her son against all medical odds: “As Timmy entered the world, the doctor said, ‘This is a miracle baby.’ “
She spoke of the lesson of love, courage and humility contained in the story of Christ’s death and resurrection: “You have to love the people in your life just as God loves us, just as Christ loves us and gave his life.”
Bob Tebow preached on how God sacrificed Christ by pinning all the sins of the world onto his only son: “God took every sin that you and I have ever done or will ever do and he nailed them to the cross.”
After his remarks, Timmy’s father said they would be handing out comic book gospel tracts written for kids — “so if there are any Florida State fans here you can read it, too.”
SeaWorld has held free Easter sunrise services for 37 years. This year’s event year was hosted by Christian radio station Z88.3 FM.
For Tammy Niebrugge, the sunrise service was perfect for her family because the kids are getting old enough now to know Easter is about more than hunting for eggs. This Easter, the family incorporated “Resurrection Eggs” into the holiday, each plastic egg containing a symbol of Christ’s crucifixion: a cross, a nail, a thorn, and a Scripture verse to go along with them.
“For my family, I think it’s just great that it’s the first Easter Sunday that they are all old enough to really understand the true meaning of Easter,” said Tammy, 40, a preschool teacher.
For Ken Niebrugge, a 48-year-old chiropractor, the Easter story reinforced the idea for his children of God as a father: “We want them to know there is a heavenly father who loves them and they can talk to him at any time and he can do things for them that mom and dad can’t.”
For Hope, the message of the day was spelled out in her name. For Brendan, it was a little disappointing that Tim Tebow never materialized. For Bryce, there was light instead of darkness when he awoke after falling asleep on his father’s lap.
Before returning to Longwood, Ken Niebrugge said the family was going to linger a little at SeaWorld with their renewed sense of what it means to be Christian. And to visit Shamu.