SOUTH BEND, Ind. (UMNS) - The Rev. Nancy Nichols is sporting tennis shoes and a winter coat under her cleric's robe. Other church members arriving to attend Broadway Christian Parish-United Methodist Church's Good Friday service are braced for cold weather, too.

"We are here to commemorate the Via Dolorosa, the walk of Jesus from the point of conviction to the point of death," explains Nichols.

Many churches observe the tradition of tracing the final footsteps of Christ, known as the Stations of the Cross, but Broadway members actually carry a cross to 14 "stations" around their neighborhood.

"During the year, I keep track of what's happening in the neighborhood then design a route around where we need to go," Nichols says. "At each of the locations we'll stop and share a prayer, sing and anoint the business or place with oil."

Redeeming the space

Each year, Nichols, who lives in the neighborhood, borrows a six-foot wooden cross from another church and leads participants along a circuit that includes a fire station, community college, abandoned homes and recent crime scenes.

On Friday, April 10, the group stops at the home of Minerva Barnes, a woman slain recently by her tenant. None of the church members knew Barnes personally, but a few know her suspected killer.

"We pray for those who committed these murders," the group reads together in front of her house. "That they may repent of their actions."

Then, a member of the group anoints the site by dipping a finger in oil brought along for the occasion and drawing the sign of the cross.

"We want this to be remembered not as a place where a woman was murdered, but as a place where children play," Nichols says, as she walks to the next station. "We wanted our prayer this year to be a prayer of redemption for that space."

"It's always a walk of hope, but it's a walk that faces the realities of the neighborhood," says Conrad Damien, who has lived in here 40 years and attended every prayer walk since the church began the tradition in 1991.

"I live in this neighborhood just three blocks from here, so going through my mind is a reappraisal of the difficulties we continue to face in this neighborhood - and joys that have happened in the past year."

Answers to prayers

Among the joys, members say, is a new business that recently supplanted a used-car lot accused of predatory lending. Two years ago, the church prayed for its removal.

This year, the group revisited the location to give thanks.

"I think the message that no place is beyond the grace of God, no matter what it may look like, is the most powerful message we could give," Nichols says.

"It's funny how God answers prayer sometimes," Damien says, as he walks past a stretch of newly renovated homes.

"A couple years ago, we prayed over this lot that was crime-ridden, full of abandoned houses, drugs, all kinds of bad things. We prayed that God would bring renewal to the area. Within a year or two, they bulldozed the homes and put in Ivy Tech Community college. It's the best thing that could have happened. It's brought the area up economically and cleaned it up a lot, too."

The group has met every year for 18 years, even in extreme conditions. Two years ago, Nichols and her group walked the two-mile route braving a wind chill temperature of 20 below zero.

The group often picks up a few participants along the way. Victor Henderson joins in during their stop in front of a local business.

"Looks like what Jesus did when He carried His own cross," Henderson says. "I like that. I'm going to walk with them."

Barry Simmons serves as a freelance producer in Nashville, Tenn.