'The essence of our faith'
When the man portraying Jesus fell to the ground on Good Friday, dozens of children took a step back and shrieked. One little boy asked a nearby adult, "Why was the man being beaten?"
Hundreds congregated on the lawn outside of St. Stephen Catholic Church to bear witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ through the Stations of the Cross, also known as Via Crucis, at noon Friday.
A yearly tradition, the church's depiction of Jesus's last days on Earth — including the Last Supper, Jesus's condemnation by Pontius Pilate and crucification — were shown through a Spanish-spoken presentation with more than 60 church members involved.
Martha Brunson, director of Hispanic ministries at St. Stephen, said the participants spent several months in preparation.
"They really put a lot of effort, passion and dedication into it because they feel it is not a show," she said. "It is their faith."
While a narrator read from scripture, the man portraying Jesus was thrown in chains, beaten and paraded through the throngs of people in attendance. He snaked through the crowd while carrying the cross, and with each fall, a majority of the audience members also fell to their knees in prayer.
"It reminds us what Jesus went through," Brunson said. "He died for our salvation. The Hispanic community is devoted to Christ, and this tradition is one way we mark it."
St. Stephen Church member Erika Guerrero met her husband, Ezekiel, in church, and their family has attended the Via Crucis every year.
"I thought it was awesome," she said. "I am glad we can show our kids our traditions so they can learn about our faith and so they will bring their children."
Isabel Flores said the Via Crucis is always emotional because she reflects on Jesus's final days in Jerusalem.
"I like to see this and remember Jesus did this for us," she said.
Sara Barker portrayed a woman from Jerusalem during the Stations of the Cross and said she participated because of the impact it has on the community.
"The main reason is because of what Jesus sacrificed," Barker said. "God's love is in my life and in those around me. We want to commemorate his death and never forget his devotion."
It was the first Via Crucis at St. Stephen for the Rev. Robert Ippolito, the church's head priest, who moved to Lee County this summer.
"It was edifying, and I was really impressed," he said. "It truly represents the deep faith of the Hispanic community. The process of reliving the death and reassurance of Jesus is the essence of our faith."