Power of public witness: Churches prepare to take the Passion outdoors

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Mar 22, 2016
Robert Yearwood, sexton of Trinity Church, carried the cross through the streets of Boston as area Christians remembered Jesus’ suffering with a march through the city on Good Friday 2015. The Rev. Rainey Dankel, also of Trinity, was one of the organizers of the “Stations of the City.” Photo: Patricia Hurley

Robert Yearwood, sexton of Trinity Church, carried the cross through the streets of Boston as area Christians remembered Jesus’ suffering with a march through the city on Good Friday 2015. The Rev. Rainey Dankel, also of Trinity, was one of the organizers of the “Stations of the City.” Photo: Patricia Hurley

[Episcopal News Service] This Good Friday, for the Rev. Scott Slater and others in the Diocese of Maryland, Stations of the Cross will include a walk along Baltimore’s Route 40 corridor and stops to pray at places where gun violence has stolen lives.

Elsewhere in the Episcopal Church, the ancient tradition of recalling Jesus’ path to the crucifixion also will be observed outdoors and in fresh and public ways.

In Boston’s Copley Square, Matt Gin, 29, plans to be among a Trinity Church group who will use pantomime and tableaux to convey the depth of the Passion. “I’m portraying Jesus in the last five stations, the scary stations,” said Gin, in a recent interview with Episcopal News Service.

And in Virginia, members of St. James’s Church’s young adult ministry will hike the stations on Holy Saturday, March 26, at Richmond’s Belle Isle, a popular spot for outdoor enthusiasts with powerful historical significance. The site of a prison camp for Union soldiers during the Civil War, it serves “as a powerful reminder that the work of reconciliation is not done yet,” according to the Rev. Carmen Germino, associate rector.

Baltimore: An ‘unholy trinity’ of poverty, racism and violence

Slater, canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of Maryland, said he’s driven through some areas of Baltimore many times “with the doors locked and the radio going” but wanted to walk the city and pray in the wake of riots that erupted after the death of Freddie Gray last year and the gun violence that continues to claim the lives of young African-Americans.

Gray, 25, was arrested April 12, 2015, on a weapons charge in Baltimore. He suffered a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody and later died. His death sparked civil unrest. A judge declared a mistrial after jurors could not reach a verdict in the trial of the first of six police officers charged in Gray’s death.

According to a 2012 U.S. Justice Department report, the Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park neighborhood where Gray lived is challenged by “a cycle of incarceration, poverty, and lost opportunity.”

The report included some grim neighborhood realities: a $24,000 median household income from 2006-2012; a 51.8 percent unemployment rate; and a chronic high school absentee rate of nearly 50 percent. About one-third of the residential properties were vacant or abandoned.

“The hopelessness (there) soaks into your bones. It’s palpable,” said Slater, who previously walked the area to plan this Friday’s observance. “Block after block of boarded-up houses and trash-strewn streets … you recognize it’s got to be tough to grow up here.”

The 7-mile walk will encompass three Episcopal church sites and include ecumenical participants. Along the way, stops for prayer at 15 spots where young African-Americans have died in gun or other violence in the past year will challenge participants to face the grim reality of what “our bishop (Eugene Sutton) has called the unholy trinity of racism, poverty and violence,” Slater said.

One stop is planned behind a gas station where “a young man was shot and killed. It’s a horrible place to die, a horrible place to live also,” he said. By seeing the names and places, Slater hopes to make both the circumstances of the contemporary lives and deaths and that of Jesus “much more real” to participants.

“I’m hoping that the concept of walking through our own city and passing spots where real people with real names died violently, and praying for them will make the actual Good Friday experience of remembering Jesus a little more palpable.”

The Rev. Ramelle McCall, 34, rector of St. Michael and All Angels Church in Baltimore, plans to join the prayer walk because he hopes to engage others “who have not seen extremely underprivileged areas of Baltimore.”

“I felt like I was a Route 40 kid; I lived in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood” for several years while growing up, he told ENS.

“It’s important to make a lot of people inside and outside the church aware of these communities that need help. I hope folks who do not live in Baltimore will see how the dynamics of socioeconomics, race and class – together – affect lives.”

McCall said his church is less than five miles from where Gray was arrested. As the anniversary of Gray’s death approaches, McCall hopes efforts will continue “to see if we can build some relationships and see where that goes.”

Slater agreed. He said there is “a real hunger for people from the diocese who don’t live in Baltimore city to do something tangible to connect with endemic problems in Baltimore.”

McCall said he is looking forward to turning prayer to action. “The need has always been there, and I’m grateful that the diocese is really coordinating this event,” he said.

“I would never have imagined that as a priest, as a black man, I would really be a part of a presumably diverse group of people that really has genuine care for these communities and really wants to see how the Spirit can work through all of us to be a real friend to these impoverished areas. That’s what I’m excited about.”

At the same time, the walk will be a sobering reminder not only “that Jesus Christ died for us on this day … but that in parts of Baltimore, people may be seeing Good Friday all the time,” said McCall.

“We’re trying to hold up, into the context of Good Friday, the unfortunate homicides that take place and the unfortunate loss of life that happens, and how we’re saddened by such death,” he added. At the same time, “we look to a future where maybe we can celebrate hope in the midst of a Good Friday where this violence is not constantly replayed.

“We have the power to rewrite the narrative, so that this is not a Friday that we look at as lives lost, but as lives that will be saved in the near future.”

Boston: Mime, tableaux, ‘Episcopal evangelism at its best’

For members of Trinity Church, the challenge this Good Friday will be conveying the Passion in pantomime and tableaux, while juggling various roles as spectators, bystanders, hecklers and Jesus.

Mary Davis is among the six church members who will take turns portraying Jesus during the last moments of his life in “a living Stations of the Cross” amid the sights and sounds of Boston’s bustling Copley Square.

“We thought, ‘It’s a lot of weight to have one person be Jesus,’ ” said Davis. “We actually just walked it yesterday and it was very moving. It made me consider aspects of the story I never thought of before, like being inside the experience in a way that was pretty new. Just during the rehearsal, I found myself in tears several times.”

The Rev. Rita Powell, Trinity’s associate rector for liturgy, organized the effort with assistance from Tony LoPresti, a New York theater professional, mime and friend of the Taizé community, who coached the actors.

Workshops with LoPresti prepared them with the fundamentals of classic mime for the performance, which will begin on the steps of the church with the first station, in which Jesus is condemned to death. Accompanied by tambourine, drum and violin, and others reading Scripture, the actors will move to other corners of the square as they enact the stations.

“It’s like an intersection between Stations of the Cross and the kind of more contemporary ‘stations of the city’ where important sites in the city are walked to and prayed. We are creating living stations of the cross using the liturgy from the (Episcopal Church’s) Book of Occasional Services,” Powell said.

Amid the busy square, the performance will be a reminder, too, that “for a small group of people the crucifixion of Jesus was a really big deal, but most of the city was not moved by the event,” she said.

Whether snow, rain or shine, the performance will go on as planned at 3:30 p.m. until the final station “where Jesus is stripped and crucified and died. That will happen in the fountain at Boylston Street and we will use the stone alcove on the front porch of the church.”

For Gin, a Harvard University doctoral student who was baptized at last year’s Easter Vigil and will also be Jesus during the stations, that’s the scary part.

“I have to say I am still not entirely comfortable with being Jesus in those five scenes and I think that’s good. I don’t think anyone should be comfortable with those scenes.”

When Powell approached him to participate, Gin, an architectural historian, was intrigued by the blend of old tradition and new interpretation.

Preparing for his various roles, of bystander, heckler, executioner and Jesus has “been a real challenge, trying to put myself not just in the story but in the mindset of all of these people. There’s a tendency to focus just on Jesus but all of the sudden you’re confronted with what was the guy thinking when he handed Jesus the cross. It’s been filled out for me in a new way.”

Gin said he actually won’t be hanging on the cross in the same sense Jesus did; a special rig will support his body.  “There’s this weird physical tension where I look like I’m hanging from (the cross) but my body is supporting it.”

At an earlier rehearsal, he realized “a beautiful tension in just that physicality. It’s so uncomfortable. And in a really honest way, I could see how painful and agonizing Jesus’ death actually was. That’s not something that people either like to think about or do think about. Even in our contemporary representations there’s the idea of the serene Christ on the cross. To actually be in that position takes it to a whole new level.”

Also, doing it “in such a public place and public way implicates everyone, whether you’re passing by or ignoring it. That’s really powerful. Whether you’re a believer or not there’s something meaningful to be drawn not just from this performance but this story.”

Davis agreed. “There’s this real joy in making this story come to life even though the story itself is one of intense suffering. That is generally how I feel in Holy Week. It’s really satisfying even though it’s really horrible to unearth that piece of our faith.”

Powell said the event represents “Episcopal evangelism at its best. To take what we love most, the liturgical expression of what we think is important in the story and to bravely dare to tell that in public, simply has a power to it and a risk and an excitement to it that you can’t match any other way.”

Richmond: ‘A powerful public witness’ amid stark reminders

On Holy Saturday, members of St. James’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, will sing, pray, and hike while recalling the last moments of Christ’s life on earth.

The city’s popular Belle Isle Park and the James River will serve as a backdrop as members of the church’s Young Adult Ministry, who organized the hike, offer reflections at “stations” marked with artwork created by the Sunday school children.

“It’s a wonderful, relaxed, inviting family atmosphere” yet offers reminders of the city’s challenges, said Danielle Dick, 40, who is planning to attend along with her 9-year-old son Aidan.

Hikers enjoy the scenic beauty but also pass the crumbling ruins of former industrial plants. They also recall the island’s history as the site of a Civil War prison camp for Union soldiers. It serves as a reminder of how much the past “still has a profound impact on the present,” she said.

The Rev. Carmen Germino agreed.

“Initially, we chose Belle Isle (as a site for the first hike last year) because it is such a well-known and well-loved public park and outdoor place in Richmond. But, the more we got into it, we realized what an appropriate theological place it was … because at one time, Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy and we are very much still living out that legacy.”

Recalling the park’s history “is a powerful reminder that the work of reconciliation in the city is not done yet and Holy Week can be a very powerful time to remember that.”

Last year’s hike drew hundreds and “there was a joyful spirit about it which I think is appropriate for Holy Saturday, when we’ve come past Good Friday but we’re still not out of the darkness yet getting more joyful about Easter,” Germino said.

“The stopping and starting, prayer and reflection is a reminder that the journey continues. It was a nice mix of experience and feeling, it helped the kids get excited about Easter.”

Additionally, “it is a public witness in the middle of what is not usually a place of worship,” she said. The sheer physicality of the service appealed to those in from their early 20s to early 40s in the group.

“As they were planning the liturgy, it made sense for it to be outdoors. The most powerful stations I’ve experienced are public ones, outside the walls of the church, as if I’m in Jerusalem, walking the Via Dolorosa.”

– The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.