Jesus Walks on Perry Street

By Thess Pfferr

Hundreds of spectators watch on Easter morning as an actor playing Jesus carries the cross to Pontius Pilate's house. (Photo by Thess Pfferr)

Hundreds of spectators watch on Easter as an actor playing Jesus carries the cross to Pontius Pilate’s house. (Photo by Thess Pfferr)

Jesus is coming, and the crowd is growing excited.

It’s just before sunset on Easter, at the end of a beautiful day. The streets outside Sacred Heart Church are crowded with dozens of people, milling about in expectation. The church is putting on a live Easter pageant, and hundreds of people are flocking here to watch as Jesus lives the last hours of his life.

Later, he’ll be surrounded by men and women of the community— many of them construction workers and house cleaners— all dressed as Bible characters as he walks to the cross. The villainous Romans are mostly played by children and teenagers. They all play a role in the passion and resurrection of Christ.

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This pageant has become a yearly ritual for Richmond’s growing Hispanic community, many of whom live in the shoddy trailer parks and apartments along Jefferson Davis Highway that I’ve been covering for the past month. I recognize few faces in the crowd, but I know how they feel: liberated.

Many of these people are documented, but many others are not. They know the danger they are putting themselves in just by being here. But today is Easter, a day of miracles, and so they speak Spanish in public, and express pride in their faith and their culture—even though being out in public, standing in this street, feels a little reckless.

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Here’s why: Sacred Heart Church is a sanctuary for immigrants, as is the Sacred Heart Center directly across the street. However, the road itself, where the crowd is gathering to watch the play, is public space and thus unprotected from agents of U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, who have been ordered to crack down on communities like this one.

One of the Sacred Heart priests, Father Jack, recalls a recent incident in northern Virginia in which “some immigrants were crossing the street from the church to a social center for breakfast. ICE stopped and interrogated them. This could happen here.”

But today is about celebration, and Father Jack turns to a couple who have brought their newborn for his blessing. The baby is so small that his father´s hand completely covers his head.

The family plays Pilate´s family in the play. The rest of the year they own a taco truck in the area. Photo by Thess Pfferr.

Members of a family from the community play Pontius Pilate’s family in the Sacred Heart Easter pageant. The rest of the year they operate a taco truck in the area. (Photo by Thess Pfferr)

A little boy calls for my attention. His name too is Jesus. He is curious about my camera, so I pass the strap around his neck and teach him how to hold it. He is excited and starts taking pictures with it. Cuidado, careful, his mother tells him. He hands back the camera and dashes into the crowd. The show is about to start. 

Jesus, the actor, is arrested by the Romans and chained to the cross. He carries the cross down the street and falls several times. Each time he does, the child Romans hit him with plastic swords and shields, which are so thin that they bend with every blow

The actors and the crown match to a house next to the church that has been decorated to be the house of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect who ruled on the trial of Jesus. “You have no powers,” Pilate says to Jesus in Spanish before someone yells “¡Crucifíquenlo!” Crucifix him!

The crowd follows Jesus as he approaches his faith. By now there are about 400 people here, and that’s when I realize what many at the Sacred Heart Center, and in the community, have told me over and over.

These people may be part of a vibrant community, but except for days like this, they are never seen. In fact, for many in the United States, including Richmond, they don´t even exist. They are an invisible crowd.

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To read this dispatch in Spanish, click here/ Leálo en español aquí.

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