Traffic along 14th Street lagged and the few shoppers out in the midday drizzle stepped aside respectfully as the church members, toting pink, yellow and green protest signs, followed their priest through the battered neighborhood yesterday in an updated version of the Stations of the Cross.
"This is one of the best-known shooting galleries along the 14th Street corridor," said the Rev. Jack Woodard of the Church of St. Stephen and the Incarnation, gesturing at a vacant house near 14th and Newton. "It's dangerous to say that because the drug dealers don't like it," he continued.
"When we permit heroin to be sold, we are crucifying Jesus," the priest said .
The usual Good Friday Stations of the Cross recall events that took place as Jesus walked to his crucifixion. Yesterday, Woodard translated the anguish and crucifixion of Jesus into the social and economic conditions that torment his inner city neighbors.
Throughout the area, churchgoers flocked to more traditional Good Friday services marking the most solemn event of the Christian year. Some groups also staged processionals, including a traditional one by Hispanic Catholics who this year focused on the suffering in El Salvador.
At the beginning of the St. Stephen's march, Woodard said, "We walk through our neighborhood to remind ourselves that Christ . . . is crucified daily in the agony of our world, of our city. We walk to remind our neighbors that we are one with them, that we are committed to helping to relieve their pain."
The processional paused in front of the Giant Foods supermarket on 14th Street to talk about how cuts in food stamps have "crucified Christ." The "White House people," Woodard charged, "don't know how it hurts to be hungry" and have not only cut the number of people eligible for food stamps but have also "increased the paperwork" for those who remain on the rolls.
He told of a welfare mother of six children who lost her eligibility because on one of the verification forms she is required to fill out each month, she had listed two of her children out of chronological order. "If you make a single mistake, the penalty is that your income is stopped," he said, "and you will never recover that check."
Woodard pointed to several nearby vacant lots--the result, he said, of fires that accompanied the riots of 1968--and added, "People are beginning to starve, and they are not going to starve passively . . . . God have mercy on us as we continue to crucify Christ in his people."
The processional's first stop was at the Riggs National Bank at 14th and Park Road NW. "Like other banks in this area, Riggs refuses to cash government checks--welfare checks or Social Security--for people who do not have accounts here," said Woodard, "but people whose income is only $247 a month can't afford bank accounts."
As a result, he explained, low-income people turn to liquor stores that will cash the checks if a purchase is made.
Riggs spokesman Bill Moreland said that most banks in the city do not cash checks of persons who do not have accounts with the bank. The bank would cash welfare and Social Security checks, he said, if the persons would "keep a reasonable balance" in an account there.
He pointed out that Riggs, as a special accommodation for persons over 65, waives its regular $6 monthly service charge for savings accounts that fall below $500.
Other stops included a house that the city had earmarked for rehabilitation for low-income residents, but which, after refurbishing, is now on the market for $99,500; an abandoned house where a homeless man froze to death last winter; and the spot less than a stone's throw from the church, where a woman in her 80s was mugged last December just after cashing her Social Security check.