Good Friday, Downtown Los Angeles, April 14:
“Our journey begins here at the Federal Building, a symbol of the government of the United States. We gathered here in the 1980’s to protest the war our nation waged against the poor of Central America. We gathered here in 1991 during the First Gulf War when thousands of Iraqis were sacrificed because they were in the way of America’s insatiable thirst for oil. During the 1990’s we wept at this spot while over 500,000 Iraqi children died under U.S. bombs and U.N. sanctions. For the past 16 years we have continued to gather here as more than 6,880 Americans and well over half a million Iraqi and Afghan civilians have been sacrificed on an altar of lies.”
This is read by a young man (Reader 2) with a scruffy short beard and mustache from an 18-page handout, printing on both sides. He is wearing glasses and has on an orange T-shirt and jeans. And what he says couldn’t be timelier with U.S. preemptively dropping the “Mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan and launching 59 cruise missiles at Syria.
He hands the mic, connected to a single speaker attached to a stand-up dolly, to a young woman (Reader 1) beside him on the top step leading into a complex of government buildings. The Edward Roybal Federal Building, 255 E. Temple St., our kick-off site, is to our right.
She’s wearing a sweater over a black dress with white spots, small ones. And sunglasses. Behind them is an older guy in a flannel shirt, high-top sneakers and baseball cap that — would you believe! — flashes bright blue in front. He’s holding the plain two-board cross just off the ground with both hands. But it doesn’t look too heavy.
We’re just into the first Station of the Cross: Jesus is Condemned to Death. Almost 100 folks plus a black poodle and English-Setter mix are standing on the sideway below. And we’re anxious to get walking on the 2017 Anti-War Stations of the Cross, which the Los Angeles Catholic Worker has organized for years. Cofounder Dorothy Day would be proud. Veteran CW Jeff Dietrich is here, of course, looking dapper in his dark glasses, gray felt jacket and signature scarf. So is actor and activist Martin Sheen, holding a red stop sign for when we cross a wide downtown street.
“In every soldier sent to war, in every civilian in the blood-drenched streets of Baghdad and Kabul, Christ is condemned to die again and again,” Reader 1 says, passing the mic back to the young man.
And he doesn’t miss a beat in the back-and-forth dialogue: “We gather when our nation chooses to sacrifice its sick, its hungry, its children and its integrity; when it chooses to pour our resources into the works of war.”
Their voices really complement each other — his with more of a matter-of-fact tone. Hers more emotive. And the ‘60s mobile sound system is amazingly loud and clear.
Below the readers is a rectangular black banner held up by two folks who don’t look all that radical. It declares “No War!” in white letters. And below “Our God is Love. Our Gospel is Peace.”
“Anybody is invited to help carry the cross and banner from station to station,” informs a Catholic Worker.
To the slow beat of a conga drum slung over the right shoulder of a guy in an Indiana Jones fedora, we process up Temple Street, turning right on Los Angeles Street and stop before the on-ramp to the 101 Freeway at Aliso Street. It’s the second station: Jesus Takes Up His Cross.
Like with the first station, traditional church refrains are first recited by the readers: “We adore you, O Christ and we praise you.” With us responding: “Because by your Holy Cross you redeem the world.”
But then there are other observations and musings on this Good Friday.
It’s explained how this place was once the site of a huge Sycamore tree that Tonga Indian elders at the village of Yang-na held council under. Later, after the U.S. occupation of Los Angeles in 1848, it became an infamous “lynching tree.” During the Chinese Massacre of 1871, 17 Chinese men were hung from its branches and others nearby.
Reader 2 says, “As we begin our journey in remembrance of Christ’s hanging on the cross at the hands of the Roman Empire, let us not forget the many who have suffered and died from Los Angeles to the Middle East at the hands of an expanding American empire.”
Now it’s back to another federal building on Los Angeles Street for the third station: Jesus Falls the First Time. On the way, we sing, “The Lord hears the cry of the poor, blessed be the Lord.”
Two things are pointed out here. Today, the U.S. sells 44 percent of the global arms trade, taking in more than $32 billion. And our nation, with its own humongous “appetite for weapons,” possesses 41.5 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns.
“Like Cain, we have also inherited the desire to kill,” declares Reader 1. We respond, “Heal us of the sin of Cain.”
The fourth station: Jesus Meets His Mother, finds us staring up at the nearby federal Metropolitan Detention Center. It’s a cream-colored high-rise that looks more like a five-star hotel on the Westside. Reader 2 says, “Just as Mary faithfully stood by her son during his trial and execution, thousands of mothers line up at jails and prisons throughout the land to stand by their imprisoned children.”
Troubling mass incarceration stats are presented. The U.S. prison population is currently populated with more than 2.2 million men and women serving time. Another 4.7 million are on probation or parole. Over 1 million of these prisoners are nonviolent offenders. And ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has a congressional mandate to fill 34,000 beds every day with immigrant detainees.
Reader 1 doesn’t mince words as Catholic Workers are wont to do: “America has become a Gulag State. Poverty has become a crime and prisons are an industry that devours the poor. Outside the prison gates the mothers faithfully keep vigil.”
For Simon of Cyrene Helps Jesus to Carry His Cross, the fifth station, we’ve moved to in front of the government building housing ICE. We learn that since President Obama took office in 2008, more than 2 million immigrants have been deported. And since taking office, President Trump has reversed the long-standing policy of not arresting nonfelon immigrants at schools, health centers and houses of worship.
Last month, as widely reported, Romulo Avelica Gonzalez was arrested by ICE officers while dropping off his daughter at a Lincoln Heights school. He now faces deportation.
“Are we, like Simon, willing to walk with our immigrant brothers and sisters as they struggle to remain with their families?” she asks. “Or will we turn away and go about our business ignoring the crucified ones among us?”
The sixth station, Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus, takes place at Downtown’s Molecule Man sculpture. We’re reminded that after Sept.11, 2001, the United States has been in “perpetual war.”
Heading to the seventh station, Jesus Falls the Second Time, we slowly sing the Latin hymn “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibiest.” There it’s pointed out that this mostly concrete park is named for Judge John Aiso. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he and his family, along with other Japanese Americans living on the West Coast, were forcibly relocated to “U.S. concentration camps.” Why? Because of fear of the other. Today that fear is directed at the followers of Islam.
Now we’re walking again and singing, “Lord send out your spirit, and renew the face of the earth.” There’s a breeze to our backs at the Emergency Response Call Center on Los Angeles Street that receives calls from Angelenos whose lives have been shattered by violence. The eighth station: Jesus Speaks to the Women of Jerusalem.
The readers and people ask God to have mercy on victims of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino and other mass shootings. And also all who have died at the hands of police as well as all police who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
The ninth station, Jesus Falls the Third Time, also happens to be on Los Angeles Street.
The James K. Hahn City Hall East becomes our 10th station: Jesus is Stripped of His Garments. Why? Because the nation’s resources like Jesus’ garments are being stripped from the poor and handed to the rich. It’s hard to argue the fact that investors and builders are making millions in L.A.’s overheated real estate market, while 46,000 county residents make their homes in tents and on sidewalks.
City Hall East off Main Street is our 11th station, Jesus is Nailed to the Cross. It’s mentioned how our Lord’s journey ending at Calvary began three years before at the River Jordan, with the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. And now standing before a dry fountain, we renew our own baptismal vows. We ask for mercy, especially for our complicit commitment to war and militarism against Iraq, Pakistan, Libya and Palestine, plus ongoing conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan.
One by one, we go up to a yellow bowl, dipping in our fingers and making the sign of the cross — pretending that we don’t hear a homeless woman in the back ranting and cursing us. After a while, a young man has the courage to approach her. He says something to her. Occasionally, knit hat pulled down to her eyes, she nods.
We head up the stairs and walk around City Hall East’s second-floor balcony singing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord.” This becomes our 12th and most sacred station: Jesus Dies on the Cross.
Reader 2 gives a long lament. “Two thousand years ago it was Rome. Today it is the United States. The names may change but the fruits of empire remain the same: the denigration and destruction of the poor, the choice of death over life. We have witnessed on our pilgrimage this afternoon the human cost of our nation’s choice. The crucifixion is not only an historical event, it is repeated again and again, day after day on our streets, in our prisons, on our borders and in the deserts and mountains of the Middle East,” he says.
People kneel for a moment of silence. Some on one knee, others on both.
Coming back down, we happen to pass right by the homeless woman. Watching our makeshift procession go by, she doesn’t say a word now and her wrinkled face is calmer.
At the nearby 13th station, Jesus is Taken Down from the Cross, we’re called to be Jesus today in prisons, hospitals, battlefields and Downtown streets — doing the “works of mercy and denouncing the works of war.”
Now nearing 5:30, it’s back to the Edward Roybal Federal Building for the last station: Jesus is Placed in the Tomb. Hope is hard to come by during this dire moment. But then it’s noted: “The triumph of life on the third day comes only after the Way of the Cross, the agony of Calvary. But come it does, in ways secret and unimaginable.”
We pray for the courage to resist the seductions of willed ignorance, self-centered complicity and cynical despair.
We pray for forgiveness for being part of an unjust empire “by our taxes, our votes, our silence, our consumption.”
And we pray for the “divine foolishness” to believe in resurrection hope despite the power of the empire and culture of death that creates and sustains it.
Reader 1, the lady in the black dress, looks out at the anti-war gathering. “Let us go in peace to make peace,” she says, “to be peacemakers in our world.”
“Amen,” we respond.