DALTON, Ga.-The words of condemnation thundered out across the crowd as Pontius Pilate sentenced a beaten and stained Jesus Christ to death, his long, dark hair half-hiding his face under the crown of thorns.
Although spoken in Spanish, there was no doubt what the words meant in any language, as the crowd of onlookers cheered and Roman soldiers placed the 100-pound cross on the shoulders of Gabriel Mejia, who was playing the role of Jesus.
Mejia and Refugio Cardola, who played Pilate, have taken part in the annual Good Friday re-enactment of the Stations of the Cross in St. Joseph Catholic Church for several years. It's an event they say they look forward to as one of the most sacred traditions of their faith.
Cardola struggled to find the words to express his feelings before the event, pausing and gesturing with his hands to explain as he spoke through an interpreter. In the hallway and nearby gym, dozens of people dressed as Roman soldiers and mourners donned their robes and adjusted helmets.
"It is the most important part of our faith," he said. "We use the passion as a way to send a message to people; to show why, the way they crucified Jesus Christ."
The event has been an annual tradition at St. Joseph's for nearly 20 years. In a congregation where 5,000 people attend mass every Sunday, thousands gather every Good Friday to watch the two-hour journey through the 14 Stations of the Cross.
It begins at the steps of church, where Pilate condemns Jesus to death in a lengthy ceremony, then wends its way down the parking lot, stopping at the various stations. Two narrators - one in Spanish and one in English - describe the events taking place at each of the 14 stations, representing where Jesus falls three times, where he meets his mother, where he is stripped of his clothes, crucified and finally placed in the tomb.
Using brightly colored umbrellas to ward off the rays of the sun, participants pushed baby strollers in the long, jostling crowd that slowly walked from one station to the next, marked by wooden crosses.
The crucifixion takes place on a small hill opposite the church. Roman soldiers thumped the heavy cross into the ground, jarring Mejia, who was tied on with ropes.
The religious importance of the Stations of the Cross is a part of many cultures, but the re-enactment has special significance in the Hispanic culture, said Father Paul Williams, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church.
"It is a great day of our faith - the moment when we sing 'hallelujah,'" he said. "It helps us to identify ourselves completely with the passion and death of our Lord."
Blanca Vega, who held her daughter's hand as the young girl watched, said she took part in the very first Stations of the Cross re-enactment in Dalton when she was a teenager. It was held in 1994 and was organized by Hispanic parishioners.
"The first year we had it in the parking lot at the old church - about 200 showed up," she said. "Then we had it on Thornton Avenue, and they closed down parts of the street. It just kept growing and growing."
After a new church was built on Haig Mill Lake Road, the event spread over much of the church grounds.
Dennis Hoskins was one of the few people in the crowd who was not Hispanic. He converted to Catholicism four years ago, and the event has become a special tradition, he said.
"When I come here, I know I am not alone in my belief and my faith," he said.