At noon this Good Friday, a cluster of people will gather on the steps of First United Church in the Downtown Eastside and begin a procession reminiscent of Jesus’s final footsteps.
In the Christian narrative of Easter, Jesus bore the cross on which he was to be crucified through the streets of Jerusalem. Pilgrims still follow what tradition says is that path through the “stations of the cross” or “the way of the cross.”
Here in Vancouver, congregants of First United, a hub of social justice and poverty-alleviation work, will be joined by others in what has become an annual pilgrimage in its own right.
Rev. Sally McShane, who has been community minister at First United for three years, says the tradition began in 1968.
Each year is different, with reflections and Bible readings intended to spark connections between today’s realities and the ancient story of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. This year’s theme is “light in the darkness.” The group, which numbered about 100 last year, will carry with them a large cross, and the procession will begin with First Nations drummers and an acknowledgement of the native territory on which the service is taking place.
McShane will say a few words about poverty and the personal relationship between Jesus and believers. As they move throughout the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown, they will chant and at each stop different individuals will offer thoughts. Included in the “stations” is the “salad bowl,” a dumpster behind a market where past-prime fruits and vegetables are reclaimed by those who live in the area. The walk will take in the courthouse and end at Oppenheimer Park.
There is a personal, spiritual intent for the participants, McShane says, but there is also an outward message to the communities through which they walk that “God loves you no matter what your circumstances are.”
“It’s a sign of the presence of God seeking to let people know that God loves them this much, even to death on a cross,” she says. “The Christology around it is that Jesus died on the cross and his walk is toward the cross, rather than to run away. The message is: God is love, God is love, God is love … and unconditional love. So the message when we walk with the cross is it’s a sign of that unconditional love, even unto death.”
First United has always been a centre of activism, of social gospel and community action.
“It’s a place where people can come and learn about poverty but also find a way to help other people,” says McShane. “So it’s a mission for many people … feeding the poor, lifting up the poor, empowering the poor, giving dignity to the poor.”
The annual Good Friday walk draws people from all over the Lower Mainland.
“Last year there were people there I didn’t know,” she says. “People who know about it come to it.”
There is a dichotomy in the neighbourhood, she acknowledges, between those with powerful faith in God and those who feel forsaken.
“It’s such a hard thing to say,” McShane explains, acknowledging that there are those who do not feel God’s love in their lives. “What I normally do, I just sit and I listen, and I ask them why. And I hear why they feel that way. I don’t preach. I don’t give advice. I don’t try to fix. I just listen. Give the dignity of listening. And I always find that people have their answers inside and if you’re a loving, listening presence, it is a huge healing moment for many people.”
On the other hand, faith is often very evident among residents of the neighbourhood, she says.
“A lot of people have very deep faith. The relationship with God is desperate in many ways. God, you really love me that much. Can I believe in myself as much as you believe in me, that I can get through poverty, or get through addiction or get through this mental illness or live through a physical disability?”
In a place that is seen, at least by many on the outside, as one of desperate bleakness, the Good Friday procession is intended to bring hopefulness.
“I know the word hope is overdone a lot,” says McShane. “But it really is about hope. It’s about believing that you can hope in a God that is that powerful and that loving. For many people, they hold onto that with both hands, grasping it. The message is so important.”