Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 21, 2005
Outdoor Way of the Cross
A 25-year Christian witness in Edmonton's inner city
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Twenty-five years after it started, the Outdoor Way of the Cross continues to be a popular Good Friday attraction. Each year on Good Friday morning, hundreds of people gather to follow the cross through the streets of the inner city.
"The inner-city Way of the Cross has become an Edmonton tradition; it makes sense to Edmonton Christians," says Bob McKeon, who has missed the event only twice in the past quarter century. "They feel this is the right way to spend Good Friday morning."
Media estimates put the number of participants anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 people in a good year.
"For me, one of the highlights is the continuing support that this event receives every year," noted Linda Winski, who has been helping organize the event since the late 1980s. "With minimal advertising, it continues to draw hundreds of people, many who attend practically every year and many who are there for the first time.
"Somehow the Spirit draws them to that event. There is something extremely powerful about this prayer-event that has people coming back every year. And I would say half the people that attend are people who have come for years and every year again there is another large group of people who are there for the first time. There is definitely a loyalty to it."
The Way of the Cross, an ecumenical prayer event commemorating the suffering and death of Jesus, was started in 1981 by a small group of Catholics "seeking to connect the events of 2,000 years ago to our contemporary lives in a real way," explained Winski.
"By taking a traditional Catholic prayer form and giving it public expression in the streets of Edmonton they were able to bridge the events of Jesus' historic crucifixion with the continuing suffering and death of people today."
The event started with a largely Catholic group led by the archdiocesan Social Justice Commission, the Franciscan Friars and the local branch of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.
McKeon, who then worked for the Social Justice Commission, was part of the organizing committee.
"I would say a few hundred participated in the first Way of the Cross," he recalled. "The first one was ambitious because the stations included the cathedral, Petroleum Plaza, the Legislature and over the High Level Bridge to the University Hospital. It was long and it was cold and windy."
Organizers learned a couple of things from the first experience. "One was, certainly there was public interest and this initial idea made a lot of sense," McKeon said. "The other thing we learned is 'Don't go so far.'"
By the second year, the procession moved to downtown with the Boyle McCauley Health Centre as one of the stations and the Marian Centre another. Over the years the event would become firmly grounded in the inner city.
"What struck me is that year after year it is growing; it's over 1,000 people a year now," McKeon observed. "It is something that touches something very special in people. People continue to come. All that is needed is to make sure the word gets out and then large numbers of people want to participate. I think the fact it has continued and has continued strong for me is the highlight."
Though the early events were planned by Catholic groups, within a few years, non-Catholics became part of the Way of the Cross organizing committee and became part of the ownership of the event. Today the Way of the Cross is endorsed by several Christian churches and is officially sponsored by the Edmonton and District Council of Churches. The organizing committee is made up of a core of about 10 people from several Christian churches and Church organizations.
This year's Way of the Cross will start at 10 a.m. at Sacred Heart School, 9624-108 Ave. The event's theme is Re-membering, a play of words expressing a desire to "reconnect the different parts of the membership together so that they are again the whole body," Winski explained. "Re-member means bringing together our past, our present and our future. And it reconnects the ancient texts to the current life of today, to what's happening and where we need to seek Christ and be Christ in the world."
"It is something that touches something very special in people."
- Bob McKeon
"Clearly over the years the Way of the Cross has become more ecumenical and the crowd includes a wider variety of people," noted McKeon, a theology professor at Newman Theological College. "The larger community has been an active participant. People come in from the suburbs, from the city centre, from everywhere and they are young and old. It's an incredible variety of people. And I think that diversity of people has only increased over the years."
The routes of the Way of the Cross have varied through the years depending on the concerns organizers wish to address and the buildings or places they choose to symbolize these concerns. For example, the procession will stop at a hospital or a clinic to address health issues, or at a food bank outlet to focus on poverty, or at the Remand Centre to address concerns about the criminal justice system.
For the last decade the route has tended to focus on the inner city as it is here where human pain and suffering is often more public and visible.
The themes of the event also vary and organizers arrive at the theme for a specific year by asking questions such as: What's happening in our community, our nation and our world? Where are the Gospel values being put into practice and where are they not? How is this impacting the people and communities that comprise the Body of Christ?
During the Iraq War, for example, the theme of peacemaking was chosen and participants looked at various aspects of making and learning peace.
As the year 2000 Jubilee approached the event focused on the jubilee principles of sharing resources locally and globally and questioned the gross disparity between the rich and the poor.
Over the years the event has dealt with issues such as homelessness and housing, aboriginal people, women, youth, the environment and marginalization as experienced by people with disabilities, immigrants and the elderly.
The cross has stopped at government employment offices to reflect on the working poor and those who are unemployed, at the Law Courts Building or at a police station to pray for those who are incarcerated and at the McCauley Health Centre to talk about the privatization of health care or access to treatment.
"This is a very powerful experience of what it means to be Church in the world today."
- Linda Winski
Christ in our city
"This is a very powerful experience of what it means to be Church in the world today," said Winski, who represents the Edmonton Council of Churches in the Way of the Cross planning committee. "This is the gathering; this is the body of Christ present in the midst of our city, in the streets where things are messy and dirty, where the injustices are really evident and yet where the signs of hope are also very evident."
The event is important to the Christian community because "this is a clear time in the Edmonton churches when we, in a way, take the Gospel and take our faith from inside the Church buildings and move specifically on the streets," McKeon said. "The other part that's significant is that this is one time in the year when the Church is publicly present in the inner city where the struggles of the poor are most visible. And to do that on Good Friday is an important statement."
Jim Gurnett, an Anglican who serves as executive director of the Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, believes the Way of the Cross is necessary in an affluent city like Edmonton where it is easy to forget about the poor.
"I love each time when the cross starts to move and we are singing and we are continuing to follow it."
- Jim Gurnett
Jesus' special friends
"I think we need the Outdoor Way of the Cross because it invites us to come back and walk in Jesus' steps and say it's the hungry, it's the homeless, it's the prisoners, it's the outcast that are the special friends of Jesus," he said. "Here we walk together and express a commitment to the poor and the outcast and pray for a world that cares about those people."
The highlight for Gurnett is the procession itself. "I love each time when the cross starts to move and we are singing and we are continuing to follow it; that's probably the moment that's most powerful for me," he said. "And I love when I see all ages and all sorts of people. It's so neat to see moms pushing babies in strollers, adult children pushing their elderly parents in a wheelchair and people from every corner of the world."
Gurnett, a member of the Way of the Cross' planning committee for several years, doesn't think the event has changed much in the past quarter century.
"I think there have been at various times pressure to make it more political with signs on different issues," he recalled. "Almost every year when we are planning we get requests from groups about that kind of thing. I think we have avoided all of that.
"We've kept it focused on prayer and thoughtful time together and I don't mind that. I don't want it to change. I can go to political rallies anytime and do. But the Way of the Cross is a moment every year where for those couple of hours I can spend in prayer walking the streets of Edmonton. I hope it doesn't change a lot."
As Winski sees it, the Way of the Cross is not a protest but a witnessing to the presence of God in our midst.
"It is a witnessing to the profoundly social nature of our faith," she said. The people who come believe very profoundly that the Gospel values have relevance not only for their personal lives but also for the way we structure our society and the way in which we live together."
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