When I am on the Skytrain at night and heading east from the downtown core of Vancouver I always make a point of looking out the window just before the Commercial Broadway Station, which is just a few miles away from the Downtown Eastside. I do so because of the EastVan Cross. It is a large neon cross with the words ‘East’ and ‘Van’ emblazoned within the cross. It was created by artist Ken Lum and erected in 2010 in preparation for the Vancouver Olympics.
It is a controversial image. Some argue that the cross, as a religious symbol, has no place in our secular society. Strident proponents of this position site the legacy of colonialism, the residential school travesties, and the history of abuse of all forms. Moderate proponents wonder if the image is appropriate in our multifaith society. Others who support this distinct cross argue that it was a gang logo that was used in the 1950’s to designate the territory of East Vancouver and to warn rival gangs to stay out. It would have been used as a ‘tag’ and many of our contemporary graffiti artists would support allowing it to stand.
To me the EastVan Cross serves a religious and spiritual purpose. Like the Mount Royal Cross in Montreal, the EastVan Cross stands as a beacon of light reminding me of the Christian journey that I am on. The fact that it creates controversy does not surprise me for the cross has always been controversial. The fact that it was erected just recently within a multicultural, multifaith and cosmopolitan city like Vancouver and has been allowed to stand is a sign of civic health.
Religious symbols always hold a ‘surplus of meaning’. They are open to many different interpretations. In a sense the unity of a symbol generates a diversity of interpretations, one of the values of our secular age. In my mind it would be detrimental to society if we chose to eliminate religious symbols, for religions and spirituality are important ingredients for a healthy society. I think that the long arc of history would bear this out.
I have little sympathy for those who want the EastVan Cross removed. I will continue to appreciate it as I pass it, particularly on dark and rainy nights when I need a little light to mark the way home. When the Skytrain rumbles down the tracks and I look at the many weary faces of the folks on the train I think to myself that the warmth of a little light can’t hurt.