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Stations of the Cross walk welcomes all denominations

The event is expected to draw 1,000 attendees from across the community and is led by area churches of different denominations.

Rev. Chris Wood holds the cross during the Good Friday walk down Main Street.
Rev. Chris Wood holds the cross during the Good Friday walk down Main Street.
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Chaplain Tom Pfaff said the Stations of the Cross event on Main Street is significant for much more than the Church of the Redeemer and the Sarasota Ministerial Association, which host the event.

Pfaff is the president of the SMA and said it’s even larger than the 1,000 attendees expected to turn out this year, or the 14 different denominations and 28 clergy involved. 

The occasion, he said, includes believers throughout the community, perhaps even those who don't know yet they will be taking part. 

“I have seen construction workers stop their pounding and look down,” he said. “I’ve seen cyclists get off their bicycles and walk with us. I’ve seen people walking their dogs, people pushing their grandparents in wheelchairs, turn around and walk with us, people getting up from all these wonderful cafes on Main Street and joining us.”

The tradition, which grew out of the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, typically involves a series of 14 images depicting Jesus on the day of his crucifixion, with worshippers stopping at each station for related prayers and devotionals.

In Sarasota, the walk will begin at the Regal Hollywood Theater on the morning of April 7. The crowd will travel along Main Street and will stop at the front steps of Church of the Redeemer, led by Rev. David Svihel of Church of the Redeemer, who carries a wooden cross.

"When I’m standing next to (David), it’s the same as being in Jerusalem. It’s the same feeling," said Pastor Mark Sedacca, a ministerial association member who has walked the Via Dolorosa. 

The event will also include appearances by city of Sarasota Mayor Kyle Battie and County Commissioner Joe Neunder.


The area's churches join together

When the walk was opened to the wider community in 2001 after it began in 1996, only 50 people attended. Last year, Pfaff said, the turnout approached 900, with 1,000 now expected.

Pfaff said among those in attendance each year are Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Seventh Day Adventists, and Mennonites. This year, the community presence expands in a significant way, with the African American community of Newtown now represented among the event's clergy.

While Pastor Wesley Tunstall, Jr., has helped carry the cross on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Newtown each Good Friday, he said this year, as a new member of the board of the ministerial association, he is excited to join his “other brothers” in Sarasota.

“Chaplain Tom, between him and God, opened a door for Newtown to have a voice now because I am on the board,” Tunstall said. “I’m honored, and I’m excited.”

Pastor Mark Sedacca, Deacon Humberto Alvia, Rev. David Svihel, Chaplain Tom Pfaff Suzi Terres, and Pastor Wesley Tunstall stand at the front doors of Church of the Redeemer, where the walk ends.
Photo by Ian Swaby

Tunstall serves two churches in Newtown, Koinonia Missionary Baptist Church and True Worship Outreach Ministries, but it was his founding of Newtown Community Ministries United, for which he serves as CEO, that paved the way toward his board position.

A truck driver, Tunstall drives Monday to Friday, pursuing his church activities on a volunteer basis. Newtown Community United Ministry involves 14 churches of different denominations which offer each other financial assistance, with pastors speaking at one another’s churches.

Deacon Humberto Alvia of St. Jude Catholic Church, whom Pfaff said leads the area's largest Hispanic congregation, has been attending the event for about 18 years since moving to the area from New York, calling it an opportunity for the community to share what it means to be part of Sarasota. 

 “Everybody comes together just sharing love, because that is what it is all about.” 

He said ever since arriving in the area, Pfaff had “opened his arms tremendously.”

“He makes it inclusive, for me to say, we may be strangers in this world, but we are united by love. We are also a part of this community. ... In the world we live in today, we cannot ignore what’s happening.”

In fact, the fourth station along the walk this year, the steps of the Truist building, is set to feature speakers offering the same words in Spanish and English.

Rev. David Svihel, priest associate for Christian formation and outreach at Church of the Redeemer, said when denominations unite, it provides an opportunity to take the church's message public.

The wooden cross he carries, he said, is part of the meaning of the celebration.

“For me to do something that’s slightly uncomfortable for me, in a small way, I can remind myself that even my suffering is caught up in the suffering of Christ on the cross,” he said.

The city recognizes the event

Pfaff said since the church began seeking permits for the walk in 2001, the city of Sarasota has increasingly supported the event. 

Beginning in the past few years, pilgrims can now walk entirely on Main Street itself, without using sidewalks. 

Traffic is controlled by off-duty police officers. 

“Our Sarasota police department has been so responsive and collaborative, with smiles on their faces,” said Pfaff, who called safety “critical.”

The police form teams that perform a rotating motion around blocks. When walkers approach one team, that team will then move upwards, ahead of the next. 

Permitting must be started 90 days in advance. According to Suzi Terres, the church's new office manager and director of event services, there is plenty of "back and forth" involved in the process, although the county has been "very helpful" with the assistance it provides.

Terres said it was partly serving as a participant in the walk that led her to the role.

“It led me to the front of Redeemer,” she said. “I was not a member here, and here I am years later.”

Pfaff said the significance of the 8th century tradition extends beyond Sarasota’s community. Some members come from Tampa, Alvia said, while Pfaff said some former participants come from as far as Orlando.

And yet, Pfaff said, the scope is still larger, as over 200 countries on Good Friday will be celebrating the day with the Stations of the Cross. 

“That whole day, wherever you are, this will be happening, and we hold hands with all those Christians throughout the world," he said.

“In all this day and time of division, and hatred, and separatism, to come together is a beautiful thing,” Sedacca said.



Ian Swaby

Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.

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