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Who is being Crucified on Route 1?

VIC’s Stations of the Cross tour takes worshippers to flash points in the debate over affordable housing.

At Good Friday services all over the country, worshippers sing a mournful question from a traditional song, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The question is, of course, only rhetorical. But the organizers of the Good Friday “Way of the Cross” Tour want an answer from the Route 1 community. So they changed the question. One modified verse runs, “Were you there when rent increases forced them out?”

On April 14, about 40 community members filled a tour bus to participate in Ventures in Community’s (VIC) third annual “Way of the Cross” bus tour. They stopped at three sites along Route 1 “where we’re continuing to crucify Christ,” expalined Rev. Keary Kincannon of Rising Hope Methodist Church. “We want to remember on this Good Friday, places where there’s still pain, still tragedy,” he announced as the bus set off. “We have to look at that because that’s not the final reality. The final reality is the resurrection, the hope that comes out of darkness and pain.” By confronting this pain and working together “we can have the resurrection in the community.”

The Good Friday tour has its roots in the Catholic concept of “The Way of the Cross,” or the “Via Dolorosa.” This tradition dates back centuries to attempts by early pilgrims to retrace Christ’s route to the site of his crucifixion. The current manifestation involves fourteen stations marking different stages of Christ’s journey. Many churches have mounted these stations in their sanctuaries. On Good Friday, worshippers move from station to station in a meditative exercise meant to bring them to a closer comprehension of Christ’s suffering.

VIC’s Way of the Cross Tour takes worshippers out of the church and into the community. But participants do not leave the bus, and they meditate on buildings instead of icons. At each stop, a portion of the Gospel of Matthew is read, recounting the events leading up to the crucifixion. Passengers are told what each site contains or represents are and asked to consider the community’s role in the suffering of its own residents. “Good Friday lends itself to looking at our sinfulness,” said Kincannon. “Our sin crucified Christ and our sin is crucifying the community … Pontius Pilate, the Romans, and the Jews [weren’t villains]. But we’ve got to recognize that our actions have consequences in the community. I hope people understand what the consequence of all this development is. Do people really want to drive all the lowest income people out of our community?”

The first of the bus’s three stations of the cross was Washington Square Apartments, a non-descript apartment complex on Route 1. From the bus, neither pain nor tragedy was immediately visible. But Shannon Steene, Executive Director of Good Shepherd Housing explained that these apartments “are often filled with low income families, people that work hard, pay a substantial rent and still struggle.” He said nine families in the complex will see an average rent increase of $75 per month. Because they do not own their own homes, “there is no asset that is increasing they can point to as some level of comfort and solace.” This rent increase works out to be $900 per year. “$900 a year is a huge obstacle to overcome,” Steene said. Washington Square can be “a place of pain and uncertainty, not knowing what the future holds.”

As the bus pulled away, Kincannon began strumming his acoustic guitar. He led the group in singing, “Were you there when rent increases forced them out? … Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”

THE NEXT station was the site of the future Buchman Road Development on Buchman Road. The bus stopped beside one-story brick houses. In the window of one, a tree limb was jammed from the inside against the frame, obscuring the dark room beyond. Brush and debris lay piled on the lawns. “[This is] the middle of what is going to be a very large gated community,” Kincannon explained. These houses and many others which were owned by low-income residents will be torn down and replaced by 420 new units.

A letter from Rev.Tony Forstall, of Wesley United Methodist Church, was read at the Buchman site. Forstall wrote that, among other emotions, he felt “a rush of indignation [at] a gated community built in a place where I do not feel threatened, even after having my car window smashed.” He wrote that he also felt “sad, very, very sad… that there are those who grasp and hold wealth… sad because there is another way.”

In the letter Forstall called on the passengers to think about “cultures in time and history when gated communities were the norm.” He listed the Roman Empire, America’s colonial and frontier heritage, and the England of the Robin Hood legend. He referred to future residents of the community as “[the] sin-soaked sinners living inside the wall.”

Forstall called for “clear and intentional witness to the needs of the least, last, and lost [to] challenge the present forces that seek to… set aside portions of land as the king’s forest.”

After the letter, Kincannon began another verse of the song that threaded the journey together. “Were you there when there was no affordable housing?” the passengers sang. As the last notes fade, Kincannon nodded to Willie Starling, the bus driver. Starling pulled out the brake and with a loud pop, the bus began to roll. It arrives at one of the most controversial places in Mount Vernon.

“North Hill,” said Pam Michell, Executive Director of New Hope Housing, as she stands at the front of the bus. “Here it is.” The bus was parked on an access road beside a forest that rises above a strip mall. This was the third and final station of the cross. Michell said that in 1981 there were 550 mobile homes on the property. But they were sinking into the ground and falling apart, so the County Housing Authority bought them out and zoned the land to hold new low-income housing. In 1998 the county’s comprehensive plan listed the plot as open space to become a park. There is currently fierce disagreement in Mount Vernon over how the land should be used.

But Michell said people’s perceptions of what this open space would be may not be accurate. “A passive park in reality means a place where homeless people live” broken up by concrete roads and concrete trailer pads, she said. “Not a place of frolicking nature. [It has] a lot of challenges just to be a park.”

Michell added that unlike other properties in the area that could have been used for low-income housing, “North Hill has not disappeared yet. It’s still here.” She challenged the bus passengers, “Will we be like apostles who flee, Pontius Pilate who washes his hands… or will we speak out about the betrayal here? How will we respond to the vision of a community that welcomes all, that doesn’t gate people out?”

As the trees on the hill swayed quietly in the wind, passengers sang the day’s third and final verse, “Were you there when promises were broken?”

But the trip ended on a more upbeat note, as the bus traveled down Route 1 to return to Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church. Passengers sang a song from the South African civil rights movement, “We shall not give up the fight. We have only started.”

The Way of the Cross is typically a spiritual meditation, but this tour called on worshippers to look outward to the political realm more forcefully than it urged them to look inward. Kincannon explained this approach. “[It’s incorrect] to say Jesus wasn’t political, that’s why he was being crucified.” “A lot of the development that’s been happening is needed,” he conceded. “But we are negligent if we don’t plan for the people that are already here.”

Kincannon explained the underlying concept of the tour: “We need to look at these places of pain.” The goal of viewing these places was accomplished. But the people who were feeling the pain associated with them remained invisible. There was never a human presence beyond the windows of the bus. Kincannon said the organizers had decided trying to involve the people who lived at the sites would be too disruptive for them. He added, though, that several of the passengers on the bus were struggling with the issue of affordable housing.