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For C.J. Clarke, Easter has a deeper meaning this year
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St. Michael Catholic Church's CJ Clarke will portray Jesus in this year's Stations of the Cross production at Laurel Park. - photo by Scott Rogers

The acronym W.W.J.D. has taken on an entirely new meaning for C.J. Clarke.

Clarke, the youth minister at St. Michael Roman Catholic Church, will be playing Jesus in the upcoming Stations of the Cross event at Laurel Park, and he’s been living his life accordingly since accepting the role.

“I’m always thinking that in my mind, like what would Jesus do in this situation,” Clarke said. “I'm always trying to incorporate these things into my life, into my ministry.”

The 29th-annual event, which walks spectators through 14 different moments of Jesus’ suffering leading to his crucifixion, is set for 11 a.m. on Good Friday, April 19.

Last year, Clarke played the role of a Jewish guard. This year, his role will be much different.

“Everyone has always said that I reminded them of Jesus, and I always hope it’s because of the kindness and love in my heart,” Clarke said, laughing. “But I think they say it because of the physical resemblance with my beard and my long hair.”

Organizers with St. John Paul II Catholic Mission asked Clarke to portray Jesus. He’ll be the first English-speaking white man to portray Jesus in the event.

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St. John Paul II Catholic Mission members perform their annual Stations of the Cross Friday, March 30, 2018 at Laurel Park. The production has been performed for more than 25 years in Gainesville with the first play produced in 1990 inside St. Michael Catholic Church sanctuary. Later it grew into the parking lot at St. Michael until the crowds grew too large and it was moved to Laurel Park in 2004. Actors rehearse for 3 months every Saturday and Sunday and crews build the set throughout the par - photo by Scott Rogers

“We have quite a few English-speaking spectators that go, and I thought that it would be a good thing for them to see that anybody can participate,” said Lorena Marceleno, director of the Stations. “We wanted to unite our English-speaking congregation with our Spanish-speaking congregation at our church.”

St. John Paul II Catholic Mission was originally part of St. Michael Roman Catholic Church, but as its Spanish-speaking congregation grew, it separated to create the mission that organizers hope will become a full-fledged parish. Now, the two churches work together to make the Stations of the Cross event come to life.

Portraying Jesus is no easy task for Clarke, and he’s been taking it seriously. He’s been going to Mass four times each week trying to prepare his mind. He’s been meditating and praying daily, too.

“I think the mental preparation of it is a huge aspect of it,” Clarke said.

And in order to prepare his body to carry the nearly 100-pound wooden cross, he’s been working out.

Along with the 100-pound cross, the church tries to make the event as realistic as possible with costumes and custom-built sets. Actors try to do the same. The soldiers will be screaming and laughing as they are beating Clarke. There will be fake blood that Marceleno said looks very real. Sometimes it’s a gruesome image that parents might avoid for their younger children, but Marceleno still encourages them to come.

“We tell everybody at the beginning that we try to make it as real as we can,” Marceleno said. “I think kids that go to church, they know what Jesus went through and once they see it, they have a picture of what actually happened instead of just listening to it or hearing their grandparents tell them the story. When you see it, you actually get a vision of what really happened.”

Marceleno was born in Mexico but moved to the United States when she was 6 years old. The first time she participated in the event was in 1994, but growing up in the area, she didn't see it anywhere else.

The Stations of the Cross didn’t seem as prominent here as it did in Mexico City, where her husband, who also helps organize the event, grew up. Now, it’s an important time for Marceleno and an event she can’t miss.

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Actors from St. John Paul II Catholic Mission perform in the Stations of the Cross play at Laurel Park March 30, 2018. - photo by Scott Rogers

“I think it’s what keeps me connected with my faith,” Marceleno said. “This is what I like to do and this is my passion, and I think that’s the reason I keep doing it every year.”

She said there are a record 110 people participating in the event this year. Even though thousands have come out to the event in the past, she’s hoping Clarke’s portrayal of Jesus will bring even more to bring the two congregations and the wider community together.

The event is typically in Spanish — the verses read aloud and the prayers. This year, Clarke’s lines, albeit limited because of his role, will be in English.

“I speak a little bit of Spanish, but not much,” Clarke said. “So to know when to go — when it’s my line and how to react — has been a learning experience.”

Beyond just his lines, the entire process has been a learning experience for Clarke.

With each rehearsal, he grows closer to God. He said studying his lines and being immersed in the story has helped him understand on a deeper level what Jesus suffered through his crucifixion.

When spectators watch and begin to understand the same things, Marceleno said they shout out and oftentimes can be seen crying as they watch.

“It gets to me every year,” Marceleno said. “I cry every year. For 13 years, I’ve cried. Every single year.”

Even though Clarke doesn’t speak Spanish, many will understand his lines by simply watching. That’s why he is happy to play the role of Jesus. It’s something everyone can understand, no matter what language they speak.

“I think that’s the power of the passion play,” Clarke said. “People can identify with it, and it’s for them to see whether they speak Spanish or not — whatever language. No matter what you hear, what you’re seeing with your eyes is just an incredible, faith-filled experience.”

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St. Michael Catholic Church's CJ Clarke will portray Jesus in this year's Stations of the Cross production at Laurel Park. - photo by Scott Rogers
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