In celebration of the joyous Easter message, congregants from three Westport churches gathered at dawn Sunday on Compo Beach for a service of hope and renewal.

About 150 people attended the annual Easter sunrise service, sponsored by Greens Farms Congregational, Saugatuck Congregational and United Methodist churches.

As the service began, the waning moon still sat high in the western sky, while the first rainbow lights of dawn rose over Long Island Sound. A mini-bonfire, stoked by Rick Benson, served as the center for the circle of singing and praying worshippers.

"I attended one of these in California ... about 40 years ago," Benson said, "and I just thought it was a wonderful thing and I've been going to them ever since."

The Rev. Ed Horn of the United Methodist Church spoke about the annual Easter morning service in the Grand Canyon, where a large boulder is rolled into the canyon right at sunrise, representing the resurrection of Jesus from his tomb as recounted in the Easter gospels.

"You can't really explain resurrection," he said. "Resurrection explains us ... Our god is a god of the living, not of the dead. God is with us in all things, even those that we thought are insurmountable."

Horn was joined by the Rev. Alison Patton, minister of Saugatuck Congregational, and the Rev. Rebecca Floyd, the associate minister for youth at Greens Farms.

"It's just a nice way to start the day, start Easter Sunday," said Mary Jean Koster of Westport. "I've been here a few times."

"There's something very magical about being here," said Totney Benson of Westport, "before the sunrise, with the fire going."

The skies grew lighter as the 45-minute service unfolded. Finally, at the very moment of Horn's concluding remark, the golden orb of the sun broke over the horizon.

"Go out as Easter people with joy, hope and love in your way," he said, "and as Easter people, may love be our song."

"I come every year," said Carol Soennichsen of Westport. "It's just such a great renewal, and then to see the sun come up like that, it just warms your heart."

"It couldn't have been more perfect," she said.