Outdoor Way of the Cross marks 40 years of prayer and reflection on social justice

10 March 2020

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It has been a long outdoor walk on the road to social justice.

Hundreds of people, from families with kids to students to the homeless living on the streets, will participate in the Outdoor Way of the Cross through downtown Edmonton on Good Friday, April 10.

Modelled after the popular Christian devotional that marks Christ’s last hours, the Outdoor Way of the Cross started as an Archdiocese of Edmonton event but has grown into a community celebration of prayer and reflection on social justice issues, open to all faith traditions. In its 40th anniversary year, the theme is Care for our Common Home, inspired by Pope Francis’ encyclical letter Laudato Si’.

The Outdoor Way of the Cross begins and ends in the inner city, where some of Edmonton’s poorest people live.

Bob McKeon helped start the Outdoor Way of the Cross, and Jim Gurnett is the main organizer.

“It makes sense because they can see how their faith touches life here and now,” said Bob McKeon, an emeritus professor at Newman Theological College, who helped start the event on Good Friday 1981.

“We start in front of a building where hundreds of people bedded down on the floor on mats the night before. It’s not something you just talk about. It’s here.”

Volunteers carry a large plywood cross as participants walk to each station, where a speaker offers a reflection on social justice. The two-kilometre route starts at Immigration Hall and ends with lunch at the Hope Mission for the homeless.

“Some of those folks are going to come out and join us, and I’m not sure that always happens,” McKeon said. “I think in churches, often, we come in. We shut our doors. We talk about things. Here, the talk is concrete. It’s incarnate. Good Friday, a story from long ago, become incarnate. Now. People sense that not so much at a head level, but viscerally.”

“It continually attracts people. A lot of people will bring their kids. Kids can bring their bicycles or their dog. And a lot of church stuff can’t quite include people that way.”

The first Outdoor Way of the Cross procession makes its way through downtown Edmonton on Good Friday 1981.

Organized by the Edmonton and District Council of Churches, the walk features eight stops that serve as reminders of the long journey toward social justice. The first will be at the Royal Alberta Museum, where members of Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples will talk about their culture and environmental stewardship.

One stop is near Rogers Place. In the shadow of the $600-million sports arena and the gleaming office towers of downtown, participants will reflect on corporate responsibility. Another is at the Homeless Memorial to people who have died while living on the streets. In years past, the Outdoor Way of the Cross procession stopped at the tent city just behind the Bissell Centre.

“We try to walk a line that’s not being partisan or critical of a particular government, but that speaks out about how people should be treated, what justice, what fairness for people really is,” said Jim Gurnett, a former NDP member of the legislature who – along with McKeon – is part of a 15-member organizing committee.

“It’s a walk to remind people that we can’t just sit in churches and worship—if we are people of faith, we need to live out the values of Jesus in the real world.”

The Outdoor Way of the Cross attracts hundreds of participants each year for prayer and reflection.

McKeon noted that in 2008 the theme of the event was “Alberta’s Boom: For Whom?” This year, in light of provincial government cutbacks, the walk may be even more politically charged. But the main point to raise awareness and build community. The prayers and reflection at each station invite people to make a further commitment beyond the event.

For several years now, members of L’Arche Edmonton – both residents and assistants – have joined the walk to raise awareness of the challenges faced by disabled people. This year, one of the station reflections will be organized by Edmonton Catholic Schools students and staff.

“The very fact that we’ll stop and go inside the Hope Mission, how many have done that before?” McKeon said. “They begin to think, ‘Maybe I could volunteer in this part of the city.’ Or to see the Sacred Heart people out; these aren’t scary people. There’s a social connection. The idea is, at the end of it, it’s a time to gather. And a lot of people stay.”

Brother Fernand Rousseau, a Franciscan, built the plywood cross still carried every year.

The Outdoor Way of the Cross began with a proposal by Rev. Kevin Lynch, a Franciscan priest in the Archdiocese, and was officially approved by Archbishop Joseph McNeil. Brother Fernand Rousseau, also a Franciscan, built the plywood cross still carried every year.

In the first year, the Edmonton event was also much more Catholic – in part because the organizers weren’t sure ecumenical groups would want to be involved.

“We were wrong. By the second year it became much more ecumenical,” McKeon said.

The Outdoor Way of the Cross expanded to other faith communities a year later. Music and singing were  always important parts of the event. In 1989, volunteer Ron Berezan composed the music to a chorus using the Scripture verse of Micah: “Act justly. Love tenderly. Walk humbly with our God.”

Music has always been a part of the Outdoor Way of the Cross, seen here on the steps of the legislative building.

Gurnett got involved when he moved to Edmonton a year later.

“It was so powerful, so meaningful to me; the reflections challenged me to go away and think about things, to look some things up. The sense of community  ̶  I was new in the city, and to suddenly find myself on Good Friday walking through the streets with hundreds of other people, I thought ‘This is a good place to be.’ ”

For Gurnett, it’s the stations where participants stop, look up and see the corporate towers of downtown Edmonton that have the most impact.

“I will just get this kind of wave that will hit me about how we, as human beings, allow that inequity, that have and have-not reality to exist,” he said. “We’re here, within our company, people who live on a few hundred dollars a month walking with us in the streets, and then you see these million-dollar penthouses in the towers.”

The 2018 Outdoor Way of the Cross makes its way past the Hope Mission.

In the past, the Outdoor Way of the Cross route went by the former location of the Edmonton Remand Centre. And McKeon remembers those years well.

“We’d stop in front of the Remand Centre, plant that big plywood cross. We would gather. We would look at the Remand Centre and those narrow windows and the people in the centre would come out the windows and look at us,” he said. “Good Friday morning. Criminal justice system. Taking and destroying life. Right? Right there. That became a real lived moment.”

McKeon said it’s critical that the event is held on the day of Christ’s crucifixion.

“Good Friday doesn’t end on Good Friday. It goes to Easter Sunday. Life conquers death. Death is not the final word. We need to see suffering today, and Jesus is suffering in a wide context in a wider story in a wider framework. I think it’s very powerful and very intentional that it be Good Friday morning.”

“The attempt is to say this message is still needed,” Gurnett added. “So as long as there’s people that want to see it happen, it’ll be available on Good Friday.”

“The issues that are creating damage in the world around us locally and globally are there year and year after year, whether we’ve touched on refugees or the poor treatment of elderly people or the dangers to the environment or whatever,” Gurnett said. “Every year we have no trouble coming up with seven or eight stations that are ugly issues in the world that we need to pay attention to.”

Organizers have made a concerted effort to ensure that young people are involved and will continue to lead the event.

With an eye on the future, the organizing committee has made a concerted effort to ensure that young people are involved and will continue to lead the event.

“Three of the longtime leaders are in their 70s,” McKeon said. “You don’t build a 10-year plan with a bunch of 70-year-olds. There’s a whole different experience, whole different passion, whole different energy, whole different grounding, whole different faith articulation that needs to be brought there.”

Similar outdoor walks are held across the Edmonton region, but the downtown event remains the biggest and most ecumenical. It is intentionally scheduled for morning so it doesn’t compete with Good Friday church services.

The Edmonton event was based on a similar Outdoor Way of Cross event in Toronto. However, McKeon said that one was much more of a “protest” movement against issues such as nuclear weapons. Calgary also has an Outdoor Way of the Cross, with a more Catholic focus.