John Seeley walked down the road, struggling a bit under the weight of the heavy cedar wood cross he bore.
Like so many pilgrims and penitents before him, Seeley traced the route that Jesus walked on the day of his execution. But the stations of the cross bore different names on this Good Friday in Baltimore: The first station, the once-segregated church. The third station, the home of the Confederate colonel. The seventh, the site of the blackface minstrel shows. The ninth, the school where white parents refused to let their children attend alongside black children.
“Lord Jesus,” the congregants who followed Seeley in procession prayed. “How can we as a neighborhood and as a parish atone for the past sins of racism?”
The walk through Baltimore on Good Friday, which Memorial Episcopal Church hosted with the theme “Repenting for Racism,” used the stations of the cross as a literal road map for the process of prayer.
This Lenten season up through Easter Sunday, thematic stations of the cross have become an increasingly common approach.
Churches have hosted prayer walks, based on the traditional 14-station journey of Jesus to crucifixion and burial, that use the 14 stops to examine the plight of refugees; that stop at the sites of 14 homicides; that expose 14 aspects of drug addiction. The walk might be as short as the perimeter of a church sanctuary or as vast as a congregational hiking trip.
Proceeding through the stations of the cross, often represented by drawings or sculptures, has long been a standard activity every Lenten season at Catholic churches. Pope Francis led his annual Way of the Cross on Friday at the Colosseum in Rome. Cardinal Donald Wuerl greeted hundreds of Spanish-speaking Catholics walking the stations in Washington Friday, and the archdiocese estimated a crowd of 4,000 walkers at a five-hour procession in Takoma Park and Silver Spring with reenactments of each station.
As the ritual has gained popularity in Protestant denominations as well, the number of topical and creative interpretations has grown.
Leslie Everheart, 70, was raised Protestant and didn’t ever give much thought to the stations of the cross until her Episcopal parish, Christ Church in Kensington, Md., started a worship service based on drawings of the stations a few years ago. Because the ritual felt unfamiliar to so many Protestants, she said, “Everybody brings something else to it.”
Everheart, a photographer, created a series of 14 photographs, each a somewhat abstract representation of one station of the cross. They hang around the sanctuary of Christ Church this year.
When she started the project, she made flashcards to help her memorize the stations. She carried the 14 index cards everywhere she went, so that if she saw something to photograph, she could think about which part of Jesus’ journey it might represent.
“For the past nine months, anywhere I went, even for pleasure, I was kind of in my mind working on the project,” she said. “It immersed me in them in a way I’d never been immersed in them … . It helped me to see that these 14 stations are about one man, Jesus, but we’ve all walked this walk.”
“We’ve all felt condemned or known someone who was condemned. We’ve all taken up a cross. He falls three times. Who among us has not fallen, emotionally?” she said, standing in front of her first photograph: a rope knot representing the first step, “Jesus Is Condemned.”
For the second step, “Jesus Takes His Cross,” she photographed a lock on a chain, which she found wrapped around a crucifix-shaped grate at a Baltimore cemetery.
“This particular Christian devotional lends itself to modern interpretation,” said the Rev. Catriona Laing of downtown Washington’s Church of the Epiphany. “The Way of the Cross that Jesus walked as a traditional thing is traditionally a moment to reflect on someone who was oppressed, who was poor, who was a refugee at one time in his life, someone who was ultimately cast out and wrongly condemned.”
Laing was visiting family in London last year when she saw an exhibition of the stations of the cross, each one a work of art reflecting on the experience of refugees. She knew she wanted to bring the exhibit to Washington.
The exhibit she co-curated in the District ended up exploring a wide range of issues across the 14 stations. Laing assembled a small team of experts who scoured the city to pick out the 14 stops – from the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Tidal Basin, to the Iwo Jima statue in Arlington, to two relevant paintings in the National Gallery of Art, to thematic art placed at Episcopal, United Church of Christ, Orthodox and Catholic institutions dotting the city.
The story embodied in those 14 stops, she said, touches modern Christians’ hearts “when it’s about falling. When it’s about saying goodbye. When it’s about feeling stripped bare, in whichever way you interpret that.”
The trail – which pilgrims could trace any time during Lent, using an app which offered a brief podcast for commentary on each station – began at the United Methodist building, just across from the Supreme Court.
There, Laing and her co-curator Aaron Rosen commissioned a work of art for the station “Jesus Is Condemned” by a man who knows exactly what it’s like to be condemned to death: Ndume Olatushani, who served 20 years on death row before he was exonerated in 2012.
His art, featuring a haunting figure in a hollow prison jumpsuit locked in a solitary confinement cell, prompted people of all races and ages to pause and take photographs.
One day during Lent, three young men passing the artwork all stopped stock-still when they noticed it.
“I can say, ‘Oh, that’s me. That’s me. That’s me,’” said Christopher Jones, 25, a native of the District now studying at Morehouse College, the historically black school in Atlanta. His classmate Zaire Martin, a Morehouse senior raised in Camden, N.J., agreed: “All of my childhood friends are in jail.”
The third young man who had stopped to observe the artwork was stunned. Henry Zuckerberg, 18, introduced himself – a senior at a Quaker high school, interning in the District. “I’m not forced to see this. I grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I know not a single person in prison,” Zuckerberg said. “I don’t know anyone who’s ever gone to a court hearing.”
“Wow,” Jones said.
It was just the sort of conversation these thematic stations of the cross aim to provoke, whether they’re about racism in Baltimore or refugees in Syria or Jesus in Jerusalem. Strangers minutes before, the three students stood for 45 minutes, talking about race and incarceration in America in front of this artwork of condemnation.