COMMENTARY: A walk in the park

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NEW YORK — As I ended my day’s work, I heard a woman singing outside my window. It sounded vaguely like religious chant — maybe Jewish, Muslim or Christian. I wasn’t sure; songs to God tend to sound alike.

I went outside to see. I followed the sound across 97th Street and came to a procession led by a young man dressed like Jesus. Following him were “Roman soldiers” carrying a wooden cross, girls in flowing robes and about 200 people from the neighborhood.

A woman standing beside loudspeakers led prayers in Spanish.

I joined at the 12th Station of the Cross and followed half a block to the 14th Station. From my years of leading such processions, I knew the rhythm: name the station (“Jesus falls”), read Scripture, say a prayer, sing, move on. This somber ritual traces the agony of Good Friday.

Even though I couldn’t understand the Spanish words, I marked their impact on people’s faces and found that inspiring.

“What church are you from?” I asked one man. “Holy Name,” he answered, pointing to the Roman Catholic parish across Amsterdam Avenue.

This encounter confirmed my plan for Easter morning. A year ago, as dawn was breaking, I walked across Central Park to a Midtown church for Easter duty serving thousands. This year, I wanted something simpler than a choral masterwork, energetic sermon and sanctuary filled with people. Something focused more on people, less on ritual.

I have learned over the years not to project my own faith experiences and preferences onto others. Faith is a journey of infinite variety. And anyone who says faith has to proceed a certain way, follow certain rules or attain certain ends is just a bully trying to take away your freedom in order to fill his own empty hole.

Some gather in Gothic splendor, some on rocks beside lakes, some in processions led by teenagers, and some in pews they hope will become friendly. Some don’t gather at all, but say solitary prayers to a God who knows solitude. Some wait to be drawn outside. Some have left Sunday religion to search for faith elsewhere.

We are all pilgrims making our way as best we can. God sings to us in the many languages of our hearts.

Easter morning in Central Park was filled with walkers, runners, bicyclists, babies in strollers, elderly in wheelchairs, dogs in little jackets, and flowers everywhere. It was glorious.

God must be pleased, I thought to myself. These are among the people whom God loved in the Passion. Does it matter, I wondered, that only some of them made any connection between their Sunday in the park and Jesus’ day of resurrection? No, God’s gift was never a quid pro quo. God gave because God chose to give, even to those who don’t know God’s name.

No matter how aggressively some Christians sell the wrath of God and lift up rules (as they define them) as absolute requirements for eternity, God seems content to hold out open hands.

All of that went through my mind as I walked through the park on a morning when, for so many years, I had been working hard at a church. I don’t regret those years; they were manna for my soul. Neither do I regret this year being one park-goer among many.

God’s goodness is vast enough for both.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus,” and the founder of the Church Wellness Project, http://www.churchwellness.com. His Web site is http://www.morningwalkmedia.com.)

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