Rain fell in blinding sheets and temperatures struggled to break 40 degrees as a group gathered in a parking lot off U.S. Highway 431 around 8 a.m.
But it wasn’t just the sight of nearly 40 people slogging through wind and rain with arms outstretched that made passing traffic stop and stare. It was the image at the heart of the assembly: a slow-moving figure, hunched under the weight of the enormous wooden cross carried on his shoulders.
Few have ever witnessed such a scene, but far fewer would not recognize it as a fundamental moment from the life of Jesus Christ.
As they made their way into downtown, singing drowned out the sound of the storm — spirited rounds of “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Victory in Jesus” and “Amazing Grace” occasionally accompanied by harmonica.
“I always keep it in my purse,” explained Josie Sims, a member of The Bridge Church in Wedowee. “I don’t sing so I thought, well, I can play.”
And when the air wasn’t filled with music, it was filled with prayer — appeals for healing, for loved ones and world leaders, and praise to God for his restoration and salvation.
For nearly two hours, each man, woman and child took their turn carrying the cross as far as they were able, some for long stretches and others just a few steps. Even Joey Williamson, 5, was able to lighten the load for another volunteer with the help of his 11-year-old brother Tanner.
Not until their journey came to an end on the other side of town, and the cross raised to look out over Main Street, did the rain finally clear and the day’s first rays of sun shine down. But those gathered at the foot of the cross sharing testimonies, encouragement, tears and praise hardly seemed to notice, continuing uninterrupted with what 5-year-old Joey declared to be the day’s purpose: “to worship Jesus.”
Obedience in all things
The Walk of the Cross in Wedowee last Saturday did not begin on U.S. Highway 431. It began last spring in Dulac, La., where Tina Mize and her husband, Cliff, first participated in a walk of the cross event.
Standing under that cross — a represenation of the cross that Jesus was forced to carry after being whipped, mocked and sentenced to die — “put you in awe of what he went through,” Tina recalled. “It put a thankfulness in your heart for him.”
Tina describes the experience as a “very spiritual journey,” one that stayed with her when the couple returned home to Wedowee last year to care for her ailing mother. Tina said she knew God had laid it on her heart to share that spiritual journey with her hometown.
Tina first shared the idea with her husband; then the couple went to their pastor and church family at Iduma Congregational Methodist Church, who were “all for it,” Tina said.
Iduma’s pastor, David Waldrop, said he was immediately excited by the nondenominational focus of the event.
“It felt like a great opportunity to reach into the community and reach across denominational lines,” said Waldrop, who noted that four or five denominations were represented at Saturday’s walk. “I believe God blessed us. We saw people come together.”
Representing not just another denomination, but another generation, was 12-year-old Nathaniel Sheppard, son of The Bridge pastor Jeremy Sheppard. A neon sweatband emblazoned with the message “I heart Jesus” slung around his neck, Nathaniel stood at the foot of the cross and shared a message he said he believed God wanted him to share, a message at the very heart of the event, and indeed at the very heart of the season: obedience to God’s will.
“The only way things are going to change is if we’re obedient. We have a choice — to serve him or live our lives, but he’s not going to make us,” the seventh grader told the crowd in a sure, clear voice. “He wants to give us a new future, but he can’t do that if we don’t let him.”
It was a message that hit home with Tina, who said God called her to bring Walk of the Cross to Wedowee “so that he could do what he wanted to do.”
But even though she knew it was God’s calling, she still had her doubts.
“Of course, it goes through your mind, no one is going to show up,” she admitted. “But God said, ‘You can’t choose what you’re going to be obedient about. You have to be obedient in all things.’”
Nathaniel’s message and Tina’s faithfulness highlight an element of the oft-told Easter story that is often overshadowed by the drama of the crucifixion and the glory of the resurrection. However, the story would include neither had Jesus himself not chosen to obey his Father’s will.
The weight of sacrifice
Wedowee’s cross, now planted on the edge of town, stands 12 feet tall, stretches 6 feet wide and weighs somewhere between 250 and 300 pounds. Waldrop, Cliff Mize and Wendell Ford, pastor of Providence Baptist Church in Woodland, built it from 6x6-inch pressure-treated wood about a month ago, said Waldrop, who recalled struggling to lug the lumber around the yard the day it was constructed. He was also the first to take up the cross on Saturday’s walk.
“It didn’t seem as heavy today,” he said, of carrying it through the rain-slick streets, something he believes may be due to the significance behind the weight of that walk.
“A lot of people just read the story in the Bible, but when we really stop to think about what Christ did for us — it’s an honor to carry it for him,” said Waldrop.
Cliff said his dad suggested that the cross be made hollow so that anyone who should want to would be able to carry it.
“But something about the weight of it, makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up,” Cliff said. “That weight just means something.”
He said after his father felt the full weight of the cross on his shoulders, he agreed. The tremendous weight begins to make the story of the Crucifixion real in a way that Sunday school lessons and Easter baskets just can’t.
Jason Reaves, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Wedowee who was joined on the walk by his daughter Lauren, agreed, saying that the chance to carry that burden, even in a small way, offers believers a better understanding of Christ’s sacrifice.
“Praise God that my 14-year-old daughter got to carry the cross,” he told the crowd at walk’s end.
Tina, who was moved in Louisiana by just the opportunity to stand under the cross and fervently took her turn under its weight this year, was also grateful for the opportunity.
“It makes it more real and gives you a feeling of unbelievable thankfulness that you can’t contain. And what you felt is nothing compared to what he felt,” she said.
Richie Sims, whose wife Josie played harmonica on the walk, put it another way.
“Jesus was toting more than the cross. He was just like us, he could have stopped,” Sims said. “But he didn’t. He saw our faces.”