Ahead of me on the sidewalk walks a Catholic priest, black and white cassocks flapping in the scant wind. Though the afternoon has already reached 80 degrees, he doesn’t appear to be sweating. He is tall and swarthy, and the cross seems to rest easily on his broad shoulder, while it almost overtakes my whole frame. I try to keep pace with him, but the pain in my feet is becoming more and more unbearable, as I’m not wearing the proper footwear for this sort of thing. Plus, I’m not exactly “in shape.”
Cross? Yes, I’m carrying a cross. Turning to look behind me, I survey the rest of our group. Walking beneath a straggly line of bobbing crosses are 30 people, young, old, male and female, of many different ethnicities. Their faces are calm; they are looking straight ahead or chatting quietly with their companions, carrying backpacks, wearing clothes ranging from a skirt and Tevas to jeans and a dress shirt. One guy in his mid-20s has a guitar strapped on his back, and another girl has a rosary wrapped in her fingers. Their posture is uniformly hunched to allow the crosses to extend forward, balanced somewhere between neck and shoulder. The only sound is the rushing of traffic mere feet away, while the crosses jut sharp lines into the bright blue sky.
On this Good Friday, we are plodding single file along a busy street that ushers rush-hour commuters from a grittier section of Dallas into the manicured corporate lawns of Plano. We are each carrying a 10-lb cross made of two four-foot pieces of wood nailed together. It’s not quite life size, but close enough to get the idea. The pilgrimage began this morning and will end at a busy upscale shopping and dining plaza later this evening. It is estimated the whole thing will take about nine hours, though many of us are only walking for a short interval.
I have grown up looking at crosses from a distance, usually at the front of churches. I’ve attended all manner of them: Evangelical, Charismatic, Baptist, Methodist, non-denominational. Now, for the past six years, I’ve been Anglican and every Sunday I see the cross processed in, carried high on a pole in a procession of white-clad priests and acolytes. That cross is small and gold and shiny, and we bow to it out of respect. This cross, dull and clumsy and the unfinished shade of sand, comes closer to me than any of the crosses that looked down on me from above. It is literally in my hands.
I have never actually carried a cross before and the reason I am carrying one now eludes me. It totally contradicts my introverted, non-confrontational nature. I know most people smile tolerantly when Christians reenact benign scenes from the Bible, like the baby in a manger or the empty tomb. It’s kind of cute. But as wrongful death is the centerpiece of this holiday, our public injunction is stark and somber. It feels uncomfortable to walk along the side of a road holding a wooden cross and subject myself to this kind of scrutiny. But that, I realize, is the point.
Thankfully, I have a friend by my side. She suggested this Good Friday pilgrimage because she knows the leader and organizer, the pastor of a small evangelical church plant in Dallas. To be honest, my first thought was, “Well, I’m not doing anything else.” Plus, the reporter in me sensed a story. Plus, I like spending time with my friend. Though my motives were less than pure, I signed on for a three-hour segment of the journey, meeting the group at an Einstein Bagel for an afternoon trek that would finish five or six miles later at a Chick-Fil-A.
I showed up at 1 pm wearing sunscreen and workout clothes; my shoes, a pair of aging Pumas, were about to prove sadly insufficient. (And yes, a pair of large sunglasses in case anyone might recognize me.) I also had a backpack with a few towels to pad my shoulders—a suggestion from the organizer—water and granola bars. My friend and I joined the group of cross-carriers who were pausing in the parking lot to read the crucifixion story. Then we lifted the crosses onto our shoulders, the leader received some instructions through a walkie talkie and we all surged forward like a creaky ship.
So, here I am—a pilgrim in a strange metroplex, walking behind a Catholic priest. How many layers is he wearing, anyway? How can he breathe? I feel a sudden kinship with him, so I ask him if I can take a picture of him with my iPhone to show my husband, and he says, yes! He works at Prince of Peace, a Catholic church nearby. He is my age, maybe younger.
“I feel like we should be singing,” my friend says.
Marching and singing might seem appropriate. But I do not want to sing. I giggle nervously, praying that nobody breaks out into song.
A few miles in, besides the pain in my feet, I notice the emotions I expected to be feeling—embarrassment, fear, anxiety—have almost dwindled to nothing. My mind feels totally empty. It only registers observations like: Hot. When people honk at us—which they do every few minutes, either in appreciation or disdain, it’s hard to tell—I jump a little but don’t feel concerned. On the other hand, the nobler emotions I had hoped for, a powerful connection with the man who hung on a cross this day thousands of years ago, are also absent. My friend and I walk side by side chatting about our jobs, husbands and kids.
After about two hours, we take a break under some trees and my friend and I pass a water bottle back and forth. Despite the towels we are using to pad our shoulders, it is bruising our skin and leaving deep indentations. An elderly woman gets out of her car in a nearby parking lot and walks over to us to thank us for what we are doing. She asks to hold one of the crosses. A 20-something in a hipster tank top offers his. She struggles to grasp it in her frail hands and hoists it onto her shoulder. We smile at her.
Apparently, I am not the only one who sensed a story. Reporters from Fox News arrive with cameras and notepads. A reporter begins interviewing members of our group and I can see more cars slowing down interestedly. What is going on? The word slowly travels down the line that there is an article about us on the Dallas Morning News website. Members of our group murmur excitedly and pull out their smart phones to look it up.
I evaluate the journey thus far. Do I want to stop at this point? Not really. I feel oddly energized that I am completing a physical challenge and somehow proving to myself that I can hang with this crew, people I would ordinarily put in the “drunk-a-little-too-much-of-the-kool-aid” category. Maybe I do connect with something about this: the pageantry, part of the reason I am so drawn to the Anglican church. In our tradition, drama plays out as we observe and relive the church year. Plus, I love the raw elegance of the liturgy—which literally means the work of the people. On some level, it makes sense that I am now participating bodily in the story of God. Six years ago, at another Anglican church, I first walked the stations of the cross on a Good Friday, wondering what it was all about. A tiny precursor of what I am doing now.
Now we have to cross interstate 635, standing on an island in the midst of swirling traffic. Our 30 members have been split up into two gangly groups waiting to cross the access ramp. We spill over the curbs and our crosses are knocked askew. Somehow we scramble across and join together again on the other side, like the waters of the Red Sea. A driver yells out the window of his pickup truck, “I love Satan!”
On the other side of the highway, my feet are throbbing. We continue to walk at a brisk pace and I ask the pilgrims behind us if they know how much farther we have to go. I am starting to want to complain a lot when I see the Chick-fil-a up ahead of us. We have been walking for approximately three hours. An SUV pulls up and in the back are cartons of water and snacks for the pilgrims. We help ourselves and sit down on the sidewalk with our backs to the wall, while the leader reads another section of Scripture.
I immediately feel better. I have, even for just an afternoon, overthrown the despot of self. I have identified myself in a physical way with the sufferings of Christ. I have walked farther than I have in a long time. I’m still not sure why I did it but in a way I can’t explain, I’m glad I did. It was more than a spectacle. It added a new flush of color to the black and white biblical account. While I was doing it, I felt the camaraderie of associating myself with a cause. And really, it’s more than a cause for me: it’s a person that I have chosen to follow with my life. If he walked a long dirt road carrying a cross, I am (less) ashamed to be seen doing so along a major highway. If I am so far removed by my cultural surroundings, maybe I needed this excursion to wake myself from a suburban stupor.
As we are picked up by a minivan and shuttled back to our cars, I wonder why I am tempted to try to neatly package this experience. It was messy, it was hot, it was confusing, a lot like the real deal. I don’t know that I will ever be able to put this experience into a category. And so, as I hugged my friend goodbye, I found myself thanking her for getting me so far out of my comfort zone that I am not sure if I can find my way back. I don’t know if I will ever do it again, but I do know that I don’t want to forget how it felt.