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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2009 Archives > March-April 2009 > Ancient traditions create Holy Week cexperience'

A homeless man named Sam carries the cross during part of the 2007 Good Friday Stations of the Cross walk sponsored by Broadway Christian Parish United Methodist Church in South Bend, Ind.
Ancient traditions create
Holy Week 'experience'

By Diane G. H. Kilmer

Their social hall was once the barn that 200 years ago housed horses and carriages during worship services. In 2008, Porchtown Zion United Methodist Church  members transformed it into a multisensory Lenten Journey experience, and invited the people of Franklin Township in rural, southern New Jersey to participate. To their astonishment, 200 came to "Walk in His Steps" -- twice the number that worships weekly.

United Methodist churches across the United States are taking fresh, creative approaches to observing Holy Week. Adaptations of ancient services of footwashing and praying at the Stations of the Cross are touching hearts and spirits, and drawing people closer to Christ.

Porchtown members furnished 12 stations telling the story of Christ. Subdued lighting, scented candles and soft music created the ambiance, says Eileen Oczkowski, journey organizer. Travelers were encouraged to "feel the cool water of Christ's baptism, toss dice at the foot of the cross, taste bitter herbs and write their names in red paint on a scroll entitled 'His blood shed for you.'"

At the Resurrection scene, participants "light a tea light candle from the Christ candle and are encouraged to let their own light shine throughout the year. People were very moved by it," Oczkowki recalls. "We had to set up seats and provide tissues at the last station. People didn't want to leave."

Porchtown will repeat the journey this year on the last three Sundays of Lent, Good Friday and Easter. "The message doesn't change, but our methods have to," says the Rev. Heidi Bak, pastor.

During Holy Week, participants at Discovery United Methodist Church walk to 14 stations throughout the building. Among the stations are "The Women of Jerusalem Who Meet Jesus" and "The Crucifixion."
Discovery United Methodist Church  in Hoover, Ala., offers a Stations of the Cross experience. For three days during Holy Week, participants may walk to 14 stations throughout the building. Youngsters can visit a scaled-down version in the children's area, while their parents walk the main one.

Bryan Underwood, minister of worship to the 200-plus-member congregation, calls the event "creative, personal, modern and highly interactive. We have a lot of very gifted, artistic people," he says, who use their abilities "in a servant way" to create the individual scenes that often present modern interpretations. Two years ago, the station focusing on preparation of Christ's body for burial depicted a funeral home setting, including a coffin. In 2008, youth filled backpacks with rocks for people to lift at the station where Jesus takes up His cross, to allow them to experience the weight of a cross.

"We combine old and new ways to be able to really remember exactly what Christ went through," Underwood says.

For 18 years of Good Fridays on the south side of South Bend, Ind., members of Broadway Christian Parish United Methodist Churchh have picked up a large cross and led a walk around the neighborhood. They prayerfully walk from place to place, stopping at public sites within a one-mile radius of the church that serve as contemporary Stations of the Cross.

"Throughout the year we track places in the neighborhood that represent fear, despair and hope," explains the Rev. Nancy Nichols, Broadway's pastor. "Last year, Good Friday saw two murders in our neighborhood. This year we will go to those spaces -- a park and a home."

In 2007, homeless people who are guests at the church's drop-in center were among the cross bearers. The walk recalled the murders of five homeless people that year.

The interdenominational cross-section of the community gathers at the church building, and often walks to a nearby fire station to pray for the first responders. They may then walk to a local public school where a prayer of hope for "education that honors our diversity and strengthens us all" is read.

The stop at an empty lot where homes have been demolished may include prayer for homes demolished on the West Bank. "We connect each station with a social justice issue & some local, some global," Nichols says. "The Stations of the Cross event is our most public expression of liturgy. It's an amazing day."

Footwashing is part of Holy Thursday services at Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn. Photo by Mike DuBose
More churches are practicing footwashing on Maundy Thursday evening. The form varies to fit the culture and size of each congregation.

The annual footwashing at New Hope United Methodist Church in Anderson, Ind., "is a sacred service," says the Rev. Doris Winford, associate pastor. "We get down on our knees just like Jesus. It's very humbling."

Following Scripture reading and hymn singing, the clergy on staff wash each other's feet and then wash those of the lay officers in the church. The leaders, in turn, serve other worshippers at 12 stations (symbolizing the 12 apostles).

"The humility of putting your feet into water that other people's feet have been in -- we call it 'community by intention,'" explains the Rev. Reginald E. Lee, senior pastor.

"There is no pressure to come forward," he says. "Only if you are led by the Spirit, should you come," he instructs people.

"What we are doing is trying to actively remember what Jesus was doing," he continues. It is "the actual doing of the Scriptures, which is powerful in itself." About 50 to 75 people participate, including people from other denominations. "It's one of the most moving services of the year," Lee says.

Approximately 600 people worship on Holy Thursday at Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn. People move to the altar to receive Holy Communion from one of eight elders. Then they may participate in footwashing at one of five stations attended by deacons who hold the person's ankle above the bowl, pour fresh water over the foot, and dry it with a clean towel. A favorite image for the Rev. Lisa Gwock, minister of discipleship, is seeing children seated on the floor near a footwashing station, taking off their shoes and socks and waiting for their turn.

Windsor Village United Methodist Church  in Houston, where 16,000 worship each week, also offers footwashing on Maundy Thursday.

It is "within a set time frame, so that after work, people may come and go," explains the Rev. Irv White, associate pastor. But the Windsor Village event that draws the highest attendance, besides weekly worship, is the Seder (Passover Meal), which is offered on three evenings of Holy Week. Tradition says it was at a Passover meal that Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper.

"Observing this festival and others outlined in Leviticus 23 has been spiritually beneficial to our congregation," White states. "Spiritually, our congregation is thriving."

--Diane G. H. Kilmer, freelance writer and editor, Franklin, Tenn.

Holy Week Resources

Ideas for services of footwashing, the Stations of the Cross and other Holy Week observances are found at the General Board of Discipleship Web site, The United Methodist Book of Worship also suggests including footwashing as part of A Service of Worship for Holy Thursday (#351) and Scriptures to use for a service of The Way of the Cross (#366).




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