Cross walk highlights region’s Good Friday traditions

John Cotter, an elder of the church at Philipsburg First Church of Christ, leads off the annual Good Friday “cross walk.”
John Cotter, an elder of the church at Philipsburg First Church of Christ, leads off the annual Good Friday “cross walk.” CDT photos

Bad shoulder and all, Nancy Snyder took a turn.

Snyder rested 60 pounds of treated pine beams on her back. Slowly, a friend lightly assisting, she dragged the 10-foot cross along state Route 350, the wood scraping against the pavement.

And on marched the Philipsburg First Church of Christ’s longtime Good Friday tradition.

Early Friday morning, a few dozen church members held their annual “cross walk”: a 3-mile procession from downtown Philipsburg to their church in Rush Township.

Several walkers hefted the cross, helping re-create Jesus Christ’s final journey to crucifixion. None could match a tiny 75-year-old great-grandmother for effort.

Snyder wasn’t going to be cheated out of her chance.

“I made sure I took a couple of steps for an old lady,” she said.

Actually, she covered about five yards before relinquishing her burden. Like others who shouldered the weight, she said she felt moved by the experience.

“Just imagine when Christ did it when he was bloody and beaten,” she said. “It just keeps me straight.”

Remembering the reason

The walk was among the Good Friday remembrances and services held throughout the county.

At Faith United Church of Christ in State College, eight local congregations banded together for the inaugural Community Good Friday Service, a 3-hour gathering.

In addition to Faith UCC, University Baptist and Brethren Church, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, State College Presbyterian Church, University Mennonite Church, Pine Hall Lutheran Church, Grace Lutheran Church and St. John’s United Church of Christ took part.

Pastors from each church delivered sermons linked by a theme of “Characters Around the Cross.”

The first speaker, the Rev. Bonnie Kline Smeltzer from UBBC, told a parable of Christ humbly washing the feet of his disciples with a basin and towel, then being brought before Pontius Pilate the next day on charges of sedition.

According to Passover festival custom, Pilate could free a prisoner to the people. Kline Smeltzer said he yielded to political pressure and chose a notorious murderer over a teacher and a healer.

“Pilate had a choice that morning, and he washed his hands in the basin of safety, then dried his hands on the towel of security,” she said.

She said the lesson applies today, as “this Jesus that we follow is dying again and again and again” everywhere “in the faces of the poor and the homeless, in the war zones of our cities and places like Syria, Iraq and Nigeria.”

“We, you and I, we can wash our hands in the basin of safety and security, or we can roll up our sleeves and get our hands clean with care and compassion,” she said. “Like Pilate, you and I, we have a choice.”

Shouldering the burden

In Philipsburg, Tim Richmond’s communal gathering met at 7 a.m. in a Front Street parking lot.

Richmond, pastor of the Philipsburg First Church of Christ, said the cross walk has been a tradition for more than 30 years.

“We look forward to it every year,” he said.

The church used to trot out a heavier cross, until hungry termites necessitated a replacement. Wheels were shelved in favor of a more authentic approach.

But the route hasn’t changed.

Rain or shine — and some years, in snow — church members follow Front Street to Presqueisle Street and then South Centre Street, up and down hills to the church.

Brandie Shingledecker, the church’s Christian education coordinator and office assistant, walked every year in her youth but didn’t carry the cross until after college.

During her turn, she said, she listens to the scraping sounds and meditates “on what Christ went through.”

“It gives me a closeness and an experience of what it was like to carry that heavy cross, to carry that knowing that he was going to be killed on that cross when he got to Calvary,” Shingledecker said.

She said that carrying the cross is “a very powerful experience.”

“You just feel close to God,” she said. “You almost feel like he’s speaking to you. It’s a very humbling experience, and very moving.”

Before setting out on Friday, some participants moved to the back of a pickup.

There, they donned biblical-style robes tied with lengths of rope — both for historical style and comfort in the chilly air.

“Last one,” said church member Greg Westwood, handing out the robes. “Get ’em while they’re hot.”

In the lot, Richmond gave thanks for the clear morning, as well as a prayer to ward off a risk unknown in Christ’s day.

“Lord, I pray that you would give us safety and that there would be nothing to harm us from motorists,” he said.

With that, the walk began at 7:30 a.m., trailed by Richmond’s wife, Deb, in a van in case of tired feet.

As pedestrians and motorists here and there took pictures and videos, church elder John Cotter carried first. After three long blocks, he yielded the cross.

“It’s heavy,” he said. “You feel every bump, every little dip.”

Along the way, the transfer was repeated several times. Some carried for long stretches; others for short spells.

When Dewey Raymond wasn’t walking backward to help look out for traffic, he took two shifts during his second walk.

He said he enjoyed the first so much last year he doesn’t want to miss another. The experience, he said, helps him understand “what Christ went through to offer us salvation.”

“It’s just a way to keep it in the front of your mind,” he said.

A similar sentiment motivated Snyder to lead the procession despite her weakened shoulder.

“I made up my mind I was going to do it because we need to be reminded of what he did for us,” she said.

At last, after 90 minutes, the cross made it up the last hill and arrived at the church.

Richmond, as he always does, closed out the carrying, toting the cross across the front lawn and resting it against the church sign.

And as always, the Good Friday morning concluded on the grass with a gospel reading, prayer and the chestnut “Old Rugged Cross.”

“I will cling to the old rugged cross and exchange it some day for a crown,” everyone sang, minutes from the coffee, hot chocolate and doughnuts waiting inside to cap another long walk.