[Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana] As the last piece of king cake lingered in the kitchen and brightly colored Mardi Gras beads hung from every tree limb and fence post, the clock struck midnight on February 28 signaling the end of Carnival’s frivolity and overindulgence. The season of Lent had begun. A season to start anew. A season to care for the body, mind, and soul. A season to prepare for the Easter Resurrection.
As the sun rose on this fresh new beginning, parishioners of Christ Episcopal Church in Covington, Louisiana, laced up their walking shoes and set out on a 6,837-mile spiritual journey to Jerusalem.
“I find Lent in South Louisiana to be a very welcomed season,” said the Rev. Morgan MacIntire, associate rector of Christ Church. “People are just ready to get back on track. They have eaten way too much king cake. They have gone to too many parades. They are just exhausted. People are looking for a time to slow down and to reclaim themselves and refocus on their relationship with God.”
Parishioners of Christ Church are participating in the Walk to Jerusalem, a walking program developed by St. John Providence Health System and designed to increase the physical, spiritual and emotional health of participants. The goal is to walk enough miles through the Lenten season to reach Jerusalem by Easter.
MacIntire discovered the program through a seminary classmate whose church was walking to Jerusalem last Lent. “I found it because we are Facebook friends,” MacIntire said. “Sometimes my classmate would take videos while she was walking and post them to Facebook. I began wondering what she was doing and thought it was the coolest thing ever. I called her to ask her about it and she walked me through the nuts and bolts of the program. I brought the idea to Christ Church to implement this Lenten Season. Anne (the Rev. Anne Maxwell, associate rector of Christ Church) and I worked on the program and the meditations together.”
“Each week the meditations begin with a prayer about walking,” explained MacIntire. “We chose one reading from the Sunday Lectionary to follow the prayer along with a reflection. At the end of each meditation, there is a question to help focus our thoughts. Whenever you go out on your first walk of the week, you are to stop what you are doing and read through the entire piece. While you walk, you meditate on the question. It gives you something to ponder while you are walking all week. I find it very helpful to center my thoughts because they can go all over the place.”
“One reason this program has been effective is that it gives people an opportunity to refocus spiritually but also physically. To have that mind, body, soul connection,” said MacIntire. “When I am walking, I feel like an integrated, whole person. I can feel the ground under my feet. I can feel my muscles ache. I can feel the sun on my skin and the wind on my face. My thoughts are clear and I am in my head because I am thinking. It is very meditative for me. I believe others have had this experience too.”
William Preau, a parishioner of Christ Church whose family has been participating in the walk, said about his experience: “In all of the walks, runs, swims, and rows that my family and I have dedicated to the Walk to Jerusalem group over the past few weeks, I feel like it has helped me be more Christ-like in all my daily activity. I feel like I am carrying his cross to Jerusalem; suffering on earth, for our just reward in Heaven. All along the way, I am thanking God for all our blessings, and thinking of ways to be more Christ-like and give back to those blessings to the less fortunate among us.”
One key component of the success of the program has been the connection building through a Facebook group where participants can log their miles, post photographs and video, and cheer each other on. People from as far away as Budapest have been participating.
Walking groups have also formed. Parishioners walk throughout the neighborhood surrounding Christ Church and along the shores of nearby Lake Ponchartrain. Even the residents of Christwood Retirement Center in Covington, as well as students from Christ Episcopal School in Covington, have logged miles.
One popular group is a Tuesday morning group for dogs and their owners led by the rector of Christ Church, the Rev. William Miller. “Although most of the participation is individual and more about virtual connections,” said Miller, “our dog group has had some quite extraordinary experiences. One morning we honored Ruby, a dog recently lost from her owner. She once was lost, but now is found! On another morning, seven dogs and six humans walked one and a half miles each through our neighborhood. Our ‘Walk to Jerusalem’ was noted curiously by a number of neighbors including one lady who had just arrived back home from the store with nothing more than a case of beer and wondered if she’d missed National Dog Day, and a driver who asked if she could bring her grand-dogs next week. I love this powerful witness to the connections of community and canines.”
Miller also noted that, “There’s an important lesson here for the modern church and how we use technology and social media to connect, support and even inspire each other.”
Relationship building is also taking place among the parishioners of Christ Church, especially those who did not know each other well before the walking program began. “There is a group walk in my neighborhood on Sunday afternoon that is led by a lay person. I have been walking with my neighbors who are also my parishioners,” MacIntire said. “It has been a great opportunity to connect with people that I don’t really get to see. Sunday morning is so busy, so actually having more time to connect with people and talk with people has been great. It has also been good for the parishioners to realize that there are people that live in their neighborhood who go to their church. One couple is already talking about taking our children camping this summer. It has been great building relationships.”
The Walk to Jerusalem was the inspiration for another event at Christ Church. There is a one and a half-mile-long walking Stations of the Cross that stops at local businesses and churches in downtown Covington. Maxwell and Youth Director Blake Burns created the station in partnership with Covington Presbyterian Church.
“We decided that if walking was going to be our main focus this Lent then we should do walking stations,” said MacIntire. “I am sure there will be other creative things that happen next year as we reflect on what we did this year.”
What is the progress of the walk so far? “I call them overachievers,” MacIntire said with a laugh. “I tell people, ‘Y’all are just going to have to slow down.’ We have already blown past the 12,000-mile mark. Lent is not over and we have already made it to Jerusalem and are on our way back. Everybody seems to love the fact that last week, the star on the map appeared as if we are stuck in Paris. There has been a lot of talk about what we are doing in France. Who knows where we are going to end up at the end of it all.”
“I can’t wait for Easter and our grand total,” she said. “I am just so excited that this is something people have gotten behind. I think there is a great spirit about it, and it has made the church feel more connected. We are going to do this again next year because it has been so well received. Hopefully, people will be even more excited for it next year because they know it is coming.”
— Karen Mackey is the communication coordinator for the Diocese of Louisiana.