The weather was in cold, rainy sympathy as a small group of Anglicans made an unusual walk: All Saints Church-Community Centre’s Good Friday Way of the Cross in the Opioid Overdose Epidemic.
Organized by the Rev. Dr Alison Falby, priest-in-charge, and assisted by lay pastoral assistant Louise Simos, the event honoured the Stations of the Cross at 14 sites in the church’s inner-city neighbourhood. Each site commemorated not only Christ’s final journey but also the death of a Torontonian who had succumbed to an opioid overdose at that location.
All Saints is located at Dundas and Sherbourne streets, an area that is home to many people living on the streets and struggling with drug dependency.
After saying prayers in the church, participants set out on a rainy two-mile walk that took them south to Queen Street, west to Victoria Street, north to Gerrard Street, south on George Street, then back east to All Saints.
The group stopped first outside a looming concrete apartment building, then at a local park. From there it was on to the nearby Moss Park Apartments, where shootings and overdoses are frequently reported.
The walk included stops at a drop-in centre for homeless people, a parking lot and St. Michael’s hospital. After that, the group stopped in a bleak alleyway that displayed a crude commemorative R.I.P. for a life that had recently ended there.
At each site, there were three readings. First came the opening of the traditional verse said at each Station of the Cross: “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,” to which the group offered the response, “Because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.”
Then a member of the group was asked to deliver a second reading. This was a passage from one of the Gospels recalling Jesus’ final ordeal – from his flogging and multiple collapses under the weight of the cross to his crucifixion and entombment.
A third reading had a double focus, linking an aspect of Christ’s final agonies two millennia ago to the suffering of his contemporary flock. These readings urged participants, as they walked these last steps with Jesus, to show compassion to all who carry the cross of addiction, and to take action on their behalf.
Before departing each station, the group recited the Trisagion: “Holy God, holy and mighty, holy immortal one, have mercy on us.”
The 10th station was in front of Toronto’s largest homeless shelter, Seaton House. There, from behind a forbidding iron fence, psychologically wounded men shouted out their desperation at the little group. Here the third reading underscored how homelessness and drug abuse stripped people of their dignity and raised their risk of early death. It exhorted members of the group to pray for more dignified housing for all.
Participants in the walk were visibly affected on several levels – by the commemoration of Jesus’ suffering, the noble cadences of the ancient words, and the confrontation of the current tragedy of drug addiction.
For me, the experience was especially powerful. On Good Friday last year, my 35-year-old nephew was found dead of an opioid overdose in a run-down motel in Cincinnati, Ohio. I can’t imagine a more compelling way to spend Good Friday than recalling Jesus’ sufferings then and recognizing the pain of our addicted brothers and sisters now.