By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 27, 2008
More than 200 pilgrims walked under a sun-kissed sky on Good Friday to follow Christ’s footsteps through the streets of downtown Atlanta.
Starting in the shadow of the Georgia Statehouse, the walkers stepped off on the twisting route to pray and sing at shelters for the homeless, city parks and tornado-damaged buildings, ending at the tomb of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
James Ragsdale, 36, who attends Christ the King Cathedral, Atlanta, said praying on the streets with the Stations of the Cross is much more reflective for him than in a church.
“A church is good because it’s a holy place and all that. But this is where we actually live our lives,” said Ragsdale.
He said the speakers leading the reflections are like “Simon or Veronica” in their own way, walking the path of social justice and encouraging people to do the same.
“I don’t quite fill their bill, but it’s nice to know there are people out there and I need to do more,” said Ragsdale, who works in the railroad industry. He attended the morning event to support a friend but ended up carrying the 20-pound wooden cross between Stations. “It’s nice to be a Simon for him for just a few seconds.”
The Stations of the Cross is an ancient Christian tradition. From the earliest days, the faithful in Jerusalem would follow the steps of Jesus to recall his death and resurrection. The holy places on his Via Dolorosa, Way of Suffering, linked followers to Jesus.
In the 1500s, the Stations of the Cross started to appear in villages in Europe as a visit to the holy sites became impossible. These shrines replicated Jesus’ final steps in Jerusalem and gave Christians the opportunity to commemorate the event. And they became the 14 Stations found in almost every Catholic Church around the world. Typically, Catholics observe his journey on Good Friday, the day that Jesus died.
For this day, March 21, downtown Atlanta served as Jerusalem. The group paused to pray in five languages at office towers; the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception; the Fulton County Family Court; Ebenezer Baptist Church; the Georgia Justice Project, that provides legal help and social work to the poor. Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory sent the group off on their pilgrimage with words of encouragement, talking over the rumbling of nearby idle buses.
Despite the prosperity of the city, the blessings are not shared by everyone, he said.
“There are people still hiding in the shadows. There are people who do not enjoy all the benefits with which God has blessed us,” Archbishop Gregory said.
“For them, every day is a Via Dolorosa. Every day, they bear the cross of poverty,” he said.
For 28 years, people have observed Good Friday with this walk. It is organized in part by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, an anti-poverty program of the Catholic Church.
Colleen Smith, an organizer with Parish & Social Justice Ministries at Catholic Charities Atlanta, said the walk adds to the traditional Stations of the Cross by looking at justice issues.
“The issues today relate to Christ’s passion and death,” she said. There were talks about the peace movement, environmental stewardship, the sacredness of life.
At the third Station, which observes Jesus falling for the first time, Bill Bolling, founder and executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, spoke of the attempt in 1981 of Christians to open a homeless shelter here.
“We receive Jesus by embracing the hungry and homeless, by bearing witness to a city of great history and wealth to the suffering of the poor, of the powerless, of those without support. Today we bear witness to the hope that comes from carrying the cross from Station to Station, in our firm belief in the true resurrection,” Bolling said.
Walking during the four hours was a cross-section of the community, long-time participants beside college students, Catholic nuns, clerics from different Christian traditions, mothers with toddlers.
James Peters, 33, of St. Joseph Church, Marietta, helped Annette Howard during the walk by pushing her wheelchair. Peters was on his second downtown Stations of the Cross.
“It was an uplifting and educational experience. It brought me just a little closer to the community,” he said.
Howard, 44, said she’s also gone to the traditional Way of the Cross this year. The downtown Atlanta experience is different because “you get all walks of life, you get people listening and watching and wondering what’s going on,” she said.
Marian Willingham, 66, has attended 27 pilgrimages, missing one because she was sick. She was a member of the peace group that began the walks.
“You call to mind not only the Gospel of the Station, or the reading of that Station, but also the plight of the community,” said Willingham, who worships at Sts. Peter and Paul Church, Decatur.
“People hear a different message. Our groups are different every year. You can get a lot out of it and become involved in what’s going on in the archdiocese,” Willingham said. “I find it very important to get up on Good Friday.”