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Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
Thirty-four of us had walked over four miles to reach the intersection of North Avenue and Northside Drive. We were participating in The Way of the Cross in the city of Atlanta. Hot and thirsty, we drank from our water bottles and drifted onto the grassy traffic triangle that marked the middle of the crossroads: the center where Christ's body would have hung on that original wooden one. We offered readings and prayers for the Eleventh Station, "Jesus is nailed to the Cross":
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.
Holy God, Holy And Mighty, Holy Immortal One, Have Mercy Upon Us.
We looked back over our shoulders to the east at the skyline's soaring towers of commerce and influence. We looked westward toward the bleak, low-rise neighborhoods through which we would now pass. The contrast was striking; the transition, swift. Our guide Benno, a priest of our parish, asked provocative questions at each of the stations. This time, he echoed architect Louis Sullivan's maxim that form ever follows function: "How does form follow function here? What is the function of the city? How does the form of the cross describe the function of Jesus' death?" Much to contemplate. We had six miles and three more stations to go in our journey across the east/west axis of Atlanta.
Northside Drive, emerging from Metropolitan Parkway in southwest Atlanta and crossing the city limits at Mount Paran Road in the northwest sector, bisects the city. This past October, eleven members of our parish traversed this fourteen-mile south/north route, praying the first eight of the fourteen stations along the way. They began their pilgrimage amidst scenes of urban poverty: pawn shops, junkyards, cardboard villages beneath underpasses, a bedroom without walls with its made-up bed, a teddy bear lying facedown in a filthy gutter. When they reached the Northside Drive/North Avenue crossing of the city, they prayed the Fifth Station, "The Cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene." They ended their walk among the opulent homes and cascading lawns of the Northside's successful and affluent. The last station for this first walk, the Eighth, aptly is "Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem":
There followed after Jesus a great multitude of the people, and among them there were women who bewailed and lamented him. But Jesus turning to them said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children."
How many who inhabit such homes and take pride in such lawns recognize how connected they are to the rest of the city? Jesus warns us to weep.
A family emergency prevented my participating in October. Ever looking for new ventures, I signed up to complete the cross with the group in Lent. We met in the church parking lot early on a Saturday morning in late March and were transported in vans to the old Druid Hills section of Atlanta, its gracious homes sitting like dowagers amidst the lovely trappings of mature landscaping.
We gathered at the corner of Clifton Road and Ponce de Leon Avenue, joining a man selling fresh vegetables from his parked truck to residents he likely could call by name. Close to the eastern city limits, we started with the Ninth Station, "Jesus falls the third time," beginning where October's hike had ended. Benno read from Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, changing the word "write" to "follow Jesus":
You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you—no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to [follow Jesus]; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to [follow Jesus]. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I [follow him]? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must," then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.
I wondered if this day would reveal anything to me about the imperative of following Jesus and the resulting implications for my life.
Our group strung out along the sidewalk as each one of us set a personal pace down Ponce de Leon. We walked in clusters, pairs, and single file, our configurations changing continually along the way, several people dropping back as others moved ahead. Some enjoyed chatting with fellow members of the parish; others preferred to move in silence. Most of us did some of both. I preferred the silence. Like a border collie tending his charges, Benno usually brought up the rear, his ten-month-old son Stewart, riding good-naturedly in the carrier on his father's back. Benno had radio contact with the head of the line so we could catch up with each other at the various station sites.
Across the street, the long green finger of Deepdene Park pointed the way downtown. I noticed a pair of homeless men sitting on one of its benches next to a colorful swing set and wondered if they would still be there when children came to the park to play later in the day. I stopped to photograph bold and cryptic spray-painted graffiti (possibly a sign of gang activity) on the concrete embankment of a meandering creek below us. Were gangs infiltrating stately Druid Hills and marking it as their turf? The city shrank alarmingly in my mind. If I am being honest, I like to think that some people stay at an acceptable distance from my kind and me, that there are lines they cannot cross, lines forming isolating compartments of safety and denial.
The transition on Ponce de Leon happened abruptly: we moved from Druid Hills' parks and old homes and brick town houses into the midst of a non-descript business district with abundant billboards, gas stations, fast-food restaurants, a movie theatre, a diner or two, drug stores, buses. A handsome brick church displayed sidewalk banners, "Food That Sustains, Since 1883" and "Taste & See, The Lord Is Good." A homeless man sat on its front steps, smoking a cigarette. None of this sinks in when I drive down the street. It is in the walking, having my feet on the ground and sweating as the morning grows hotter, that I notice my surroundings and wonder what all goes on here.
We prayed the Tenth Station, "Jesus is stripped of his garments," in front of a strip joint. Benno asked: "Do we understand our city? Do we understand the ways in which we contribute to the poverty and neglect of our neighbors? What do you suppose it is like to strip in order to earn your daily bread?" I thought about strippings that are figurative and perhaps even more demeaning: women cleaning filthy toilets or men collecting stinking garbage so their children can eat at their tables. I tried to ignore the fact that the toilets and the garbage are mine. Poverty dehumanizes both its obvious victims and those of us who choose to ignore its effects. Poverty is not just monetary and material; poverty of intellectual and spiritual resources seizes rich and poor alike, locking us up in cages of the mind and the heart.
The tall, elegant buildings of the city loomed ahead and offered welcome distraction. I have never worked in one of them, but they still made me feel more comfortable and at home. We did a zig and a zag from Ponce de Leon to North Avenue and then passed over the busy interstate and through the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology before reaching the crossing at Northside Drive. After praying that Eleventh Station on the traffic triangle, we turned left off Northside Drive onto the Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway and the last arm of our pilgrimage. As we made the turn, a man in a truck stopped Benno: "S'cuse me. You know where you're going?" The warning was implicit. Benno assured him that we did; the man threw up his hands in frustration. He had tried!
The scene now was beyond non-descript; it was desolate: bars on doors and windows; barbed wire fences; mounds of trash and rotting furniture dumped into stagnant stream beds; lots filled with broken-down cars; pawn shops and deserted houses; closed-up, concrete block storefront churches with their painted signs. I took a photograph of red and black lettering that proclaimed, "PURE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST; PRAISE IS WHAT WE DO." The metal rods on the windows and doors offered stark contrast to the message. Still the truck driver's concern did not become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Reactions from passersby to our conspicuously all-white group ranged from curious, "You from a church?" to outright friendly, "How ya doin'?" I was never afraid.
We stopped for lunch at a corner Benno had selected when he traveled the route on his bicycle. His wife, Laura, brought us sandwich makings, fresh fruit, nuts, cold drinks, and more water: a feast. A young boy on roller skates shyly approached us and nibbled away when we invited him to share the meal. Our picnic ground was next to a demolished house with only the original stone doorframe standing. The first boards of new flooring, however, gave evidence of a story about to unfold. The empty but substantial doorframe spoke of both desolation and hope to me. We read from the Twelfth Station, "Jesus dies on the Cross," and included fitting words from the Episcopal Church's Good Friday Liturgy: "Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new...." "What is God raising up here?" Benno asked. "How do we celebrate the life and death of things in the city? In our lives?"
We set out on our last four miles and two stations. Stewart now departed with his mother, having had enough bouncing on his father's back in the hot sun. We hiked past several parks and schools, a senior day center, a Chinese restaurant, a Fulton County Family and Children Service Center, and those ubiquitous automotive shops selling tires and used car parts and promising quick lube jobs; the Bankhead rapid transit station, a fire station, a library, as well as modest homes, an apartment complex, a trailer park; shopping areas with fast-food franchises (we used the rest rooms), hair and nail salons, clothing stores, food markets, trucks selling bar-beque and what-have-you from their open back doors. We passed by a considerable number of churches of all stripes, including some that looked more typical to us: stone and wood United Methodist and Baptist structures with signs announcing the likes of "Family Night Tonight."
These ingredients had been stirred up and mixed together in a huge blender; there was no neat separation between business and residence. While our surroundings had become less bleak, we were far from the old monied homes in Druid Hills, sitting in the neat compartments of their stately neighborhoods. On a vacant site across the street from an empty parking lot, we heard what sounded like gunshots and then prayed the Thirteenth Station, "The body of Jesus is placed in the arms of his mother." We sang, "Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love, show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you." Benno continued to give us hard questions to consider: "What do your neighbors look like? Who has held you when you have felt dead? How does the maternal image of God change, challenge, expand your notion of God? Who is the mother of this community?"
Still contemplating his words, we moved toward the last station. A young black man caught up with us just before we reached the Atlanta Police Precinct Zone One's headquarters. "You from a church? I need prayers." He was turning himself in, for what we did not know. Those who heard him likely made quick intercessions. But if we had not been on his street, we would not have recognized him as a neighbor in need, and he would not have recognized us as people to whom he might turn. Albeit temporarily, we had been poured into the blender. Abbé Michel Quoist prays:
Lord, help me faithfully to travel along my road at my proper place in the vastness of humanity. Help me above all to recognize you and to help you in all my pilgrim brothers [and sisters]. For it would be a lie to weep before your lifeless image if I did not follow you, living on the road [they] travel.
We prayed the Fourteenth Station, "Jesus is laid in the tomb," in a small, dilapidated cemetery nearly ten miles from our start. The setting was appropriate to our physical and emotional fatigue. We had walked miles and had taken the city within ourselves. The inscription on an overturned granite headstone brought me to tears:
No one knows how much I miss you, No one knows the bitter pain, I have suffered, since I lost you, Life can never be the same. In my heart your memory lingers, Sweetly, tender, fond and true, There is not a day, dear Arthur, That I do not think of you. "One who loved you."
My first thought: that we all might be so cherished! My second: but this cross we have been carrying with us all day tells us that we are. I suspect our pilgrimage through the city, from houses of privilege and power to this forgotten graveyard on its outskirts, mirrored Jesus' degrading route through Jerusalem on that Friday we name Good. Benno read from T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
He asked: "Do you feel like dancing? How can the way of the cross be a dance? How do rich and poor differ in their perspective on when, how, and who should dance? If the cross is our still point, how does it affect your perception or your disposition towards the city?" My thoughts strayed to Arthur and his love, and I hoped they are now dancing together. We rested in this still and forgotten place that was both peaceful and sad and then set out on our last three-quarters of a mile.
We passed through a large housing project, Bankhead Courts, and the western city limits just before crossing the slow-flowing Chattahoochee River. On the other side, we gathered at the entrance to a fenced-in junkyard, and Benno again put forth Rilke's counsel:
... I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live with them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
The words were the perfect send-off for a day filled with questions spoken and unspoken. We made Eucharist, passing the bread and wine among us, before vans arrived to take us to the church parking lot and our waiting cars. We rode back mostly in silence.
Over the ensuing weeks and months, the images and questions of the day continued to play in my imagination, and I tried to follow Rilke's direction and not arrive at premature answers and conclusions. I collected observations and thoughts, however, ones that might help me live into that first question of the morning: must I follow Jesus? I reflected on the nature of pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage is liminal or threshold work: it is voluntarily placing myself on the threshold between what I know and what I do not. When I go on pilgrimage, I expect—hope—that some disruption will happen within me, that a voice or voices will speak to me. Someone has said that every pilgrim comes home with one less prejudice and one new vision. I also remembered a definition of pilgrimage as prayer in motion, and I am coming to know that prayer has more to do with listening than with forming sentences and petitions. So as best I can, I the pilgrim am putting myself in the vulnerable position of flirting with what I cannot anticipate, much less control or maybe even want. It is dawning on me that I am to approach every day of my life as a pilgrim, especially if I decide I must follow Jesus. "Happy are the people whose strength is in you! whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way" (Psalm 84:4 BCP).
Excerpted from Make all things new by CAROLINE A. WESTERHOFF. Copyright © 2006 Caroline A. Westerhoff. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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2 Only One Thing
3 Tears in a Bottle
4 Shadow People
6 Mother Mary
8 Out of the Valley
9 The Good Shepherd
12 Things Made New
13 Sacred Wells
14 Center of the World