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How a centuries-old practice is offering peace in a pandemic at one Gainesville church
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A cross is placed in front of Grace Episcopal Church Monday, July 20, 2020, as part of 14 Stations of the Cross prayer stations between Washington Street and Brenau Avenue in Gainesville. The stations have a QR code that you scan, which offers spiritual guidance. People are encouraged to start with the first one and move along the path. - photo by Scott Rogers

Fourteen wooden crosses stand in different locations around Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville, inviting community members to walk and pray through the grief they’ve encountered. 

Starting with location No. 1, in the shade of a tree near the church’s bell tower, visitors take an immersive journey through Jesus’ crucifixion — from his condemnation to his death to his body being placed in the tomb. And they experience it by walking through a labyrinth, drawing sand mandalas and creating journal entrees, among other practices. 

The marked stations include a scannable QR code with audio from a church member who guides listeners through a devotional as they walk. Each recording is under two minutes, but they offer an interactive component for anyone to enjoy on-site at their own pace.  

Grace Episcopal clergy and staff members Cheryl Kelley, Cynthia Park and Jennifer Williams make up the team that brought the interactive walk to life. The trio finished the project on July 17. 

“The entire installation is an opportunity for people in the parish and people in the community to identify and connect their real experience of suffering during the pandemic with Christ’s example of suffering that had a transformation aspect and outcome to it,” said Park, who also serves as the church’s senior associate rector. 

Kelley also serves as Grace Episcopal’s director of Christian formation and Williams as the church’s communications director. 

This type of installation, called the “Stations of the Cross,” dates back to around 800 years ago, when Saint Francis of Assisi established a way for people in Europe to engage with the story of Jesus’ crucifixion without taking a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, according to Grace Episcopal’s Rev. Stuart Higginbotham. 

Stations of the Cross 

What: A path of 14 stations that guide visitors on a journey of prayer and reflection 

Where: Outside Grace Episcopal Church, 422 Brenau Ave. NE, Gainesville 

Map of stations: gracechurchgainesville.org/pandemic-stations-of-the-cross/ 

“Saint Francis wanted to find a way to help them imagine the particular space and find some meaning in their life,” Higginbotham said. “The stations themselves are roughly 500-600 years old.” 

Grace Episcopal keeps a permanent Stations of the Cross inside its building, which people typically visit during Holy Week, the seven days preceding Easter. With the church’s physical space closed to the public during the pandemic, Higginbotham said his parish wanted to find another way for people to pray and engage with their grief and anger, especially during a time of great uncertainty. 

The outdoor installation incorporates both the centuries-old practice and offers opportunities of personal reflection through short exercises. He said the parish is currently working on a Spanish version of the devotional. 

“Our hope is that this can be a space where we can be honest about how we feel and use our imaginations to remind us that all of this is being held in God’s love,” Higginbotham said.  

Park said people can complete the journey in any order of their choosing, and she described a particularly fitting station, which encourages members of the community to reflect on who has been their biggest support during the pandemic. When they’ve chosen that individual, visitors are prompted to write the person’s name on a strip of yellow fabric and tie it to a clothesline draped around a nearby tree. 

Park said the 14th stop encompasses the transformation people are seeking in their lives. 

“There’s a box of plastic butterflies,” she said. “You’re invited to take one away with you to remember that something beautiful is going to come out of this.” 

In addition to providing moments of spiritual reflection, Park said people are welcome to view the outdoor Stations of the Cross as a public piece of art. 

“You don’t have to be religious to be looking for something hopeful in all of this pandemic,” she said. “A part of our human existence is to seek for a deeper meaning. We hope that walking the Stations of the Cross offers multiple opportunities to embody the process of finding meaning in this.” 

For those unable to visit the Grace Episcopal's property, which is located at 422 Brenau Ave. NE in Gainesville, the 14 stations’ recordings and activities can be viewed online at gracechurchgainesville.org/stations-of-the-cross-1/. A map of the devotional can also be found at gracechurchgainesville.org

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