[Episcopal News Service] During a pilgrimage to the Holy Land three years ago, Adaeze Nwachuku prayed the rosary while walking through the Via Dolorosa or “Painful Path”, the path that Jesus would have followed on the way to his crucifixion.
This Lent, she walked that same path symbolically in the light of a setting sun thousands of miles away on an outdoor Stations of the Cross in her episcopal parish, Christ Church in Short Hills, New Jersey. She stopped and looked at each station, touching the trees they hung on, while listening to an audio version of the traditional worship service.
“It was, for me, like being in Jerusalem and actually walking the path,” she said. “It moved me to another area of life.”
Nwachuku is going through his own “darkness and desert” of chemotherapy. Walking and reflecting on the 14 stations showed her that Christ is “greater than any cure,” she said. “It was a great healing moment.”
As many church buildings remain closed and worship services online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some congregations are exploring new ways to deliver spiritual experiences in a time of closures and social distancing. In the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, Christ Church and Grace Church in Madison have erected temporary outdoor stations of the cross for worshipers and visitors to walk and pray during Lent.
Christ Church wanted to share something during Lent with the community, just as they did during Advent when the congregation placed lights in the graveyard trees to light up the neighborhood, said rector Reverend Bowie Snodgrass. “It was really wonderful to have the light outside this year when we couldn’t be together in church.”
She conceived the idea of the Lent stations by accompanying her daughter to nursery school. She noticed a row of trees along a retaining wall behind the church. “It was just a little inspiration from the Holy Spirit: we could put 14 stations and a box with a little explanation on those trees.”
They bought a set of bronze plaques depicting the traditional stations which they found aesthetically pleasing – “and it wasn’t ‘the blond Jesus’,” she said. A carpenter built structures to house them, mounting each plaque on a cedar plank with a small olive wood cross above and an overhanging roof. One-page documents list the names of the stations as well as some prayers.
“The idea was to have something that people could do on their own or with their household that was Lent and meditative – not just the resorts, but the whole setting and context as well,” Snodgrass said. . “We have one person who has joined the church from the online pandemic who grew up here. He came to the stations and said he hadn’t been to the building since he was a scout.
Longtime parishioners have also found them significant.
“I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, so the Stations of the Cross is part of my DNA,” said Christ Church member Christopher Harlow-Jennings. At the Catholic school, “we made stations every Friday of Lent during the lunch hour”.
He continued to pray at the stations in different settings within college, graduate school, and beyond, including participating in a station tour with the Calvary Episcopal Church youth group in Summit, New Jersey. One year, an artist guided the young people in the creation of their own stations.
“Now the point is, the church is entirely on the computer, and some of these opportunities to pray outside and have prayer time in a holy place on your own are kind of hard to find.” said Harlow-Jennings. He walked through the stations of Christ Church on a sunny day, with children playing soccer nearby.
“It was peaceful,” he says. The images were “simple and moving”.
“The simplicity of this kind of allows you to use your own mind to guide you,” he said. “I thought it was just beautiful.”
The ability to physically walk around the stations while praying, observing the surroundings, touching trees, and listening to a recorded service she brought with her made a huge difference for Nwachuku.
“I am a tactile and auditory learner. I need to feel, touch and hear stories, ”she said, explaining that storytelling is an integral part of her culture as an Ibo born in Nigeria.
Episcopalian Brigid Dwyer, who toured the stations of Grace Church, noted that it was an “embodied style of worship.”
“Part of worship is walking,” she said. “I could not make stations by clicking [on a computer] from one image to another. I couldn’t do stations at my desk with an occasional service book. It really takes walking.
The Short Hills stations face the rear of the church, where views include a dumpster, concrete wall, and chain link fence.
“It’s the least attractive part of our whole property,” Snodgrass said, “but I felt like it was also very relevant because Lent is when we look at the parts of ourselves that we let’s try to hide. “
Likewise, Grace Church stations meander along the parking lot as well as into a memorial garden. The backdrops include trees and flowers in some places, but a fence and apartment building in others. Background noise includes car and truck traffic, barking dogs and passing trains.
“It was a big part of the experience for people,” said Reverend Susan Ironside, Rector of Grace.
Grace’s parishioners usually pray at the stations inside the church, but could not do so safely this year, she said. “It has brought new meaning to what it is to pray for a God who has taken on fragile flesh. When you hear the world revolving around you, it is a very interesting – and moving – way to meditate on the Passion of Jesus as the city revolves around us as we have our prayer life.
“It’s very effective and very healing for us to pray to something that is both very familiar but in a completely new way and in a completely new context and in a whole new light of pandemic life,” a- she declared. “Thinking about human suffering in general and God’s solidarity with it this year is a unique and powerful experience.
Grace’s stations are simple wooden crosses, marked with Roman numerals. A booklet provides a map as well as traditional prayers and readings from the Book of Occasional Services.
The trip “ends at a large cross where we invite people to light a candle with their prayer offering and intention of some sort,” Ironside said. “When I come to work, I see fresh wax. I see beautiful evidence of God’s people at prayer.
Outdoor stations can be a less intimidating way for non-church members to participate, she said. “It has been a great way to connect with each other and with our community. “
Dwyer first toured the stations with two fellow students from the nearby Drew Theological School. “One of them said he knew the stations from his childhood in the Roman Catholic Church, and the other, I don’t think she’s ever done stations before.”
For Dwyer, a longtime Episcopalian, train stations are a precious tradition.
“Stations are something I try to do as often as possible during Lent. I’ve been doing stations since I was a kid, ”she said. “A few years ago I ran a weekly station at Christ Church, Bloomfield / Glen Ridge [New Jersey]. We divided the parties, only seven or eight people came. “
While this church has “beautiful” imagery, simply walking and praying to Grace’s outer stations was spiritually fulfilling for Dwyer. “You didn’t need the pictures,” she says. “It was just as significant to go from a bare wooden cross to a bare wooden cross.”
In another pandemic Holy Week innovation, the Diocese of New Jersey church where Harlow-Jennings works as music director, St. John on the Mountain in Bernardsville, is planning an outdoor resting garden where people can come and pray. all night long on Maundy Thursday in Good Friday. This and the outdoor stations allow people to engage their faith in a new way as long as the pandemic restrictions remain, he said.
“People are hungry to come back to do something in real life, in person, and it’s a chance to push people into a different area of prayer than they would otherwise be comfortable with,” said Harlow-Jennings. “It’s almost like a chance to revive older traditions.”
-Sharon Sheridan Hausman is a freelance journalist and priest in the Diocese of Newark.