Procession's Prayers And Parallels Camden's Good Friday Ceremony Displays A Diverse Portrait Of Faith

Posted: March 29, 1997

CAMDEN — Jesus Christ, clad in red-stained white tunic and twisted crown of thorns, was dark-skinned. The Virgin Mary, her face encircled by an azure veil, her eyes red-rimmed and swollen, was a Latina teenager.

The two thieves, who died next to Christ on Calvary, were Vietnamese Americans.

The crowd, which packed two city blocks yesterday, was a faith-filled mozaic of immigrants from Central America, Vietnam and Cambodia; migrants from Puerto Rico; African Americans and European Americans.

There were men in suits, mothers pushing strollers, girls in Easter dresses and lace-trimmed anklets, teenage boys in baggy shorts and sweaters, teenage girls in slim-fitting bell-bottoms and platform shoes.

The prayers, songs and traditional recitations washing over the crowd of about 200, in rhythms that ebbed and flowed, were in three languages: Spanish, Vietnamese and English.

Here, in St. Joseph's Pro-Cathedral parish in East Camden, the traditional Stations of the Cross is more than the ritual re-enactment of Christianity's most solemn day - Good Friday.

Here, it has also become a reflection of the community's dazzling diversity.

At each station, prayers recalled Christ's suffering and evoked parallels to the challenges faced by many of the parishioners - immigration, learning new languages, racism.

``It's a good thing to come like this, with all different languages and people,'' said Thuy Nguyen, 25, an immigrant from Malaysia who works at St. Joseph's Nursery School.

Led by the stoic, downcast Christ and Roman soldiers with leather vests, silver helmets and braided whips, the procession wound through the streets in a slow, steady march. The throng passed tidy homes decorated for Easter as well as burned-out building husks. It passed families gathered in front yards as well as corners known for drug dealing and shootouts.

On 28th Street, where St. Joseph's Carpenter Society has helped renovate many of the homes, Christ - played by parishioner Wilson Evangelista - first shouldered his cross.

The prayers recalled those who shoulder other, more typical, burdens:

Jesus, they give you the cross to carry. It looks so big and you look so small. . . . Sometimes, people give up hope because they don't have money to pay their debts, the bills pile up, and they have no one to depend on.

Anilda Cortes, 50, an employee at Woodrow Wilson High School, led two of her grandsons by the hand as she marched. A third played the role of the apostle John. For Cortes, a lifelong Camden resident, the Way of the Cross was a way to reaffirm her faith and to negate the image many outsiders have of Camden.

``We are one family here. We don't feel divided because of race, color or creed,'' Cortes said. ``Camden is a beautiful place, but people don't see that.''

Still, she worries about the problems facing her city.

``I cry for the children of Camden. Our children are suffering. Nobody sees the goodness of our children. They are good kids.''

At Dudley Grange Park on Federal Street, on steps facing Woodrow Wilson High School, Christ stood before the crowd while the Roman soldiers stripped him of his thin tunic. He stood in a loincloth and trembled.

The prayer resonated through the crowd.

In you, we see many people who have been stripped of everything they had. We have seen the Africans who were brought here as slaves, the Irish who came fleeing hunger, and the Central Americans and Asians who came fleeing war and oppression.

We pray for all those, especially African Americans, who have been stripped of their country, their culture and their own name. For the native Americans who were robbed of their land. For the immigrant workers who are daily cheated of their wages.

In the 3000 block of Carman Street, just down from Woodrow Wilson, Christ was bound to the cross. Several men stepped forward and hoisted the wooden cross on their shoulders.

The marchers shuffled slowly up a small, grassy hill. There, the cross was lifted. The crowd, now strewn across the knoll, dropped to its knees. The prayers echoed over a small sound system and ended with static that sounded more like a clap of thunder.

Then, silence fell.

The Virgin Mary, played by 13-year-old Angel Marie Rios, gazed up at her son. Her eyes filled with tears.

In our world today, there are so many people who die because of murder and war, people who die because of accidents and drugs. Mother and father cry over the deaths of their beloved children. Today, we promise to make this world a place . . . `where all tears shall be washed away.' ''

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