The congregation of Little Fork Episcopal Church in Rixeyville has found a way to help families come together for prayer this Easter weekend despite churches being closed due to the coronavirus.
While Little Fork Episcopal will not hold in-house church services, Rector Stacy Williams-Duncan and her congregation have created a religious experience that is open to the public.
People will have the opportunity to pray the Stations of the Cross, which depicts the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, from either inside their car or by walking along a country lane full of blooming cherry trees.
The religious artwork was created by Choctaw artist Melonie Twelves, a friend of Williams-Duncan. The two women worked together along with others in the community to bring the artwork to Culpeper County.
“I grew up in Oklahoma. My family is Chickasaw, and I’m still an active member of the Chickasaw Nation,” Williams-Duncan said. “I have a very dear friend in Oklahoma who is an artist, Melonie Twelves, and who is a member of the Choctaw Nation. So, I’ve known these set of Stations of the Cross for over a decade. I’ve known them and seen them and experience them.
“When the Episcopal Bishop, Susan Goff, first told us in a conference call … with all the clergy in the diocese that we were not going to have church and there’s a chance that it’s going to last through Holy Week, I began to say, ‘Oh my gosh, this so bizarre and how are we going to do this?’ I was completely weirded out. What do you do?” Williams-Duncan said.
Last weekend, church leaders placed large copies of the Stations of the Cross up on Little Fork Episcopal Church’s property at 16461 Oak Shade Road in Rixeyville.
“My first thought was, ‘How am I going to get copies of Melonie’s Native-American Stations of the Cross?’ Because it seems to me there’s just something that we needed to tap into the resilience of native people who survived pandemic after pandemic after pandemic in order to find the spiritual resilience of this pandemic,” Williams-Duncan said. “I kept feeling there is something we can learn from this.
“That night I called Melonie on the phone in Oklahoma, and said ‘I’m wondering about it.’ And she very generously said, ‘I completely trust you, let me send you the artwork. So she sent it to me and I began to think about what I am going to do,’” Williams-Duncan added. “A long time ago I thought, ‘Someday I want to hang Melody’s Stations of the Cross on this ground to pay homage to the native people who lived here long before any of the European settlers who came here.’”
Little Fork Episcopal Church was founded on the same Rixeyville property in 1731. “The building that’s here was consecrated in 1776 and that was the third church building on this property,” Williams-Duncan said. “When I think about standing in the place and praying, this is very close to that story of who was here and who lived here. I just decided, I thought ‘well, OK, I am going do it this year. Maybe this is the year to do it.’”
With the help of a banner maker in Charlottesville, and volunteers Ed Dodd, Richard, Beau and Renae Gutridge, Joel Duncan and Bill Gaylene and Laimbeer, the rector’s vision has become a reality. “Some amazing engineers from my congregation determined how we can put stands up that were temporary but sturdy enough to survive the wind,” she said.
“We’ve put them up here in a way that you can drive down the church lane and see them from your car window. Or they’re far enough apart that you can walk them and you can still pray them individually as you were praying them,” Williams-Duncan said.
“I was talking to a friend who said, ‘what about people who can’t drive out to Little Fork. What about people in other parts of the country?’ So, I began to wonder about what we were going to do and how that was going to happen.”
Williams-Duncan noted that while Stations of the Cross are considered a Roman Catholic tradition, they’re not exclusive to that church.
“I think that it’s important to recognize that this is not a Catholic church,” the Episcopal rector noted. “Stations of the cross are a Roman Catholic tradition, but they’re not limited to the Roman Catholic church. As an Episcopal Church, we consider ourselves both Protestant and Catholic in tradition, and they’ve always been part of the Episcopal tradition, but they’re also being prayed at lots of other churches. This website went up and I had emails from a Presbyterian Church in Kansas City that said, ‘we have those stations,’ and another church in Arizona that said, ‘we have a set of those stations.’ So, I think that was a beautiful thing to have happened.”
Williams-Duncan even gave a history lesson on the Stations of the Cross.
“In the Middle Ages, it was a tradition to travel to Jerusalem, where Jesus had died, and walk the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem. That was considered the ultimate religious pilgrimage for Christians, to go to Jerusalem and walk each of these stations that were throughout the city and pray these prayers,” she said.
Just like today’s coronavirus has called for creativity in getting the Stations of the Cross to the masses, the same was true back in the Middle Ages, Williams-Duncan noted.
“A couple of things started to happen; one plagues and diseases, and two, the Crusades started to happen. It was no longer safe with wars happening in that part of the world for people to travel to Jerusalem,” she said of ancient times. “Instead of traveling to Jerusalem, the great cathedrals in Europe started to set up these visual Stations of the Cross that mirrored all of these places in Jerusalem that you would stop and pray if you were going to walk the end of Jesus’s life. It became this artistic visual pilgrimage that people could do anywhere you were. That is the tradition of the Stations of the Cross. This set of Stations of the Cross follows that ancient tradition.
Going into more detail, Williams-Duncan noted: “As always happens in ancient traditions, they’re not exactly literally biblically accurate. There is one where Jesus is meeting Veronica, the woman who wiped Jesus’s face with a cloth, which actually never occurs in the Scriptures. It’s never been in the Bible, but it always has been in the tradition sense of the Stations of the Cross.
“One of the things that happened in the 1960s was that [Pope] John Paul II renamed a set of Station of the Cross that are completely biblical. So, there is always a question when you’re doing the Stations of the Cross, is this the ancient set of Stations of the Cross or is it the biblically accurate set of Stations of the Cross? This pattern of the Station of the Cross follows the ancient pattern,” Williams-Duncan noted.
In another modern interpretation, the imagery used for Little Fork Episcopal Church’s Stations of the Cross is available at https://smallchurchesbigimpact.org/.
“I called two other creatives that I know really well and what came about was a whole website where all of the Stations, along with the scriptures and the prayers and the musical refrain and meditation, are now available on a website for people who can’t come to Little Fork,” Williams-Duncan said. “It just sort of grew out of people’s desire to have a connection and a way to pray. And we’re going to leave them up through the end of the governor’s order.
“There is one last Resurrection Station that will go up for Easter, a big cross, a resurrected Jesus that will go up for Easter,” she added.
For those who want to get out of the house and off the internet, Little Fork Episcopal Church’s Stations of the Cross have an added bonus.
“They’re just quite striking on this hillside right now, with the blooming trees behind them,” Williams-Duncan said.