For two decades, I have taken part in a public Way of the Cross procession on Good Friday. At St. Aloysius in Washington, D.C., the procession began after dark. Moving from the church, we would walk through the surrounding low-income neighborhood, flashlights in hand, following a crossbearer and singing hymns as we stopped at places suggestive of present-day suffering. The first station, for example, was before the door of the Father McKenna Center, a source of help for homeless people and poor families. Another station was in an area known for drug sales. Others included a stop before a Veterans Administration office to remind us of the scourge of war. Finally, back in the church, the via crucis concluded with Communion and veneration of the cross.
Here in New York, I join in my present parish’s quite different Good Friday procession. It takes place not at night, but in the glare of midafternoon, amid the noise and confusion of the Lower East Side. Though it is becoming gentrified, the area remains a significantly immigrant neighborhood, filled with tenements, where longtime residents struggle to hold on to their homes in the face of ever-rising rents. The majority of the parishioners are Hispanic, so the hymns—focused on the need for God’s mercy, like “Perdona a Tu Pueblo, Señor”—are in Spanish and are sung with a fervor generally absent among more self-conscious, English-speaking parishioners.
At both churches—in Washington and New York—the processions are an eclectic gathering of old and young. In New York, mothers with baby carriages and strollers are a common sight, even when the procession takes place in the rain. A few wheelchairs are also usually in evidence, motorized or pushed by a relative. Some of our older English-speaking parishioners also join in—longtime residents whose presence is a reminder that the neighborhood was once predominantly Italian. Last year, an octogenarian of Sicilian descent pointed out to me the apartment building where she was raised early in the last century.
As we move six and seven deep through the narrow streets, the varied history of the neighborhood unfolds before us. On Stanton Street, for example, we pass a small synagogue—one of several now unused synagogues in that area. They are representative of a time in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when Jewish families from Eastern Europe accounted for a large portion of the population of lower Manhattan. Looking upward, we always see people leaning from their open tenement windows, arms on the sills, drawn by the sound of the singing as we pass below. Processions are, after all, a spectacle, a way of giving witness to onlookers that, for us, following the cross is a conscious choice. The sight of a white-haired woman looking from the fourth floor stands out in my mind—as does the image of two small children, hands gripping the metal window guards that prevent them from tumbling out. At some windows, little Puerto Rican flags can be seen—reminders that after the Second World War, large numbers of Puerto Ricans immigrated to New York City.
On the return route to the church, we walk by trendy new cafes that have become an increasing presence on the Lower East Side. Young people within look out at us curiously. Heading east then on Seventh Street we pass St. Stanislaus Church, an active Polish parish that has been a point of stability for the Polish people who continue to live in the neighborhood—prosperous enough not to have been dislodged by gentrification.
The fact that one procession was at night and the other during the day suggests the struggle between the darkness and light of the world in which we live. Walking in procession with one another at the slow pace of a pilgrimage also suggests we are companions in this struggle that continues throughout the journey of life. We proceed on the journey not just on Good Friday, but every day, accompanied by Jesus, who helps us to carry our individual crosses even as we follow the one ahead of us.