By Seth A. Raymond
In the heat of a mid-summer afternoon below the town of Assisi, pilgrims make their way to one of the remaining leprosaria, La Santa Maria Maddalena. At the front of the procession are two high school boys, one white, one Puerto Rican, warning in loud voices of the leper following close behind. Micah, an African American high-school sophomore, follows with shuffling feet. He is covered with a black cloth, a makeshift pall, draped over his backpack filled with bottled water, a journal, and packets of Nutella. He carries the tentennella, the traditional wooden clapper that warns the locals of his approach.
With a mixture of solemnity and idle chatter, 26 other pilgrims follow in funeral procession behind Micah, knowing that when we arrive at La Maddalena, he will be considered as good as dead. Micah will no longer be called one of our own, but will live out his days in the Umbrian valley, isolated from the townspeople above.
We approach the small stone church and file in. There is not much that impresses our weary travelers about such a humble space. Pilgrims remain quiet as our leper is led to the front of the nave by Brother Tom, our Franciscan guide. Brother Tom leads us in a reflection on alienation, separation, being different. He asks each of us to write a poem on the theme of bullying and read it aloud. We then enter a sacred moment of ritual hand-washing, each pilgrim washing the hands of the next, enacting a humble service to the outcast and lepers among us.
Milwaukee is often described as one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States. Even in the most diverse neighborhoods, it is not uncommon to find one block of Puerto Ricans next to a few blocks of African Americans, next to a block or two of Caucasians. As demographics shifted over the years, mainline churches in Milwaukee largely failed to keep pace with the changing landscape, leaving behind remnant congregations, while newer residents worship in storefront churches that dot the streets of many neighborhoods.
Just north of the center city of Milwaukee is the village of Whitefish Bay, home of Christ Church. A well-known derisive name for this village is Whitefolks Bay. Whitefish Bay is located in a “super Zip,” a Zip Code that ranks in the 95th percentile for median income and percentage of residents with college degrees. Census data show a population of 14,163 that is 96.1 percent white and 1.3 percent African American, with a median annual income of $117,000.
One Zip Code away from Christ Church is All Peoples, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that restarted from the ground in 1991 with an emphasis on reflecting the makeup of its neighborhood. The differences between the two neighborhoods are stark. The neighborhood surrounding All Peoples has a median household income of $21,000, 91 percent African Americans, and 25 percent having some college education.
In most years of this century All Peoples concentrated largely on its local surroundings, running a youth-staffed urban gardening program year round and providing services such as a soup kitchen and after-school programming. Christ Church sent its youth on annual mission trips to build and repair homes in Appalachia, encountering the rural poor in an intense week of building and providing traditional works of mercy.
In the summer of 2013, Franciscan Pilgrimages Program approached the two churches about forming a first ecumenical high-school pilgrimage. Our churches were asked to expand a partnership that began in 2011 and involved a few volunteers from Christ Church assisting with Wednesday night meals at All Peoples, plus a pulpit-and-choir swap. The Franciscans asked if we were willing to do more, to take a risk, and combine our youth groups for a nine-day Franciscan pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi.
The Rev. Steve Jerbi, pastor of All Peoples, describes the pilgrimage offer as “a unifying goal that provided an excuse for our two churches to journey together.” The idea quickly took root as a way to engage mission, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP 1979, p. 855). Our imaginations were ignited about how this opportunity might be incarnated as a year-long pilgrimage, culminating in a nine-day intensive pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi. For the first time, our youth programs might build real, incarnated, reconciling relationships within our city. We embarked on what Paul identifies as God’s intention for all disciples: continuing the divine ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18).
Reconciliation through Pilgrimage
After the initial excitement about the invitation, our churches reflected on what this pilgrimage experience would offer our churches. What about pilgrimage would spark the imagination of our members, particularly our youth? How might pilgrimage help our churches move more deeply into a ministry of reconciliation?
After three days in Rome, many of the pilgrims began to question the purpose of pilgrimage — especially wanting to know why there was so much talk of St. Francis and not so much about Jesus. In lieu of a planned reflection time, Pastor Jerbi asked the group: “Where would you go to understand Martin Luther King, Jr.?”
Youth from All Peoples, well educated in the Civil Rights movement, enthusiastically answered, “Atlanta!”
“Right,” Steve said. “Where in Atlanta?”
“The Civil Rights museum,” chimed in a Christ Church pilgrim.
“Okay, but where would you go to really get to know Dr. King? What about Ebenezer Baptist Church? You see, to get to know someone, we go to where they lived and worked, where they exercised their ministry. We see the place Dr. King preached the gospel of equality and civil rights and we learn what he was about. We learn that throughout his ministry Dr. King was pointing at Jesus.”
While disciples of Martin Luther King travel distances to see the places of his ministry, Jesus spent the majority of his ministry walking with his disciples. Pilgrimage is an opportunity to explore two important dimensions of Christian discipleship: the experience of encountering holy places where God has been made known, combined with the experience of inhabiting these spaces with fellow disciples.
Pilgrimage illustrates the good news that mission is a journey of God with us. Both of our churches had expressed mission as something done for others — Christ Church in its service in Appalachia and All Peoples in its service to the neighborhood. While both of these ways of doing mission have their particular virtues, neither of them fully grasps the power of what Jesus offers in a unique way: the God who is so deeply for us that he comes down, lives among us, with us. Pilgrimage shows us something as simple and yet profound as what it means for Jesus Christ to be Immanuel.
Walking for a Year
The Great Hall of Christ Church is a cavernous open space that swallows the nervous energy of 22 high school youth embarking into the unknown. Our pilgrimage began in this space with cautious icebreakers, moving from the nonthreatening “fruit salad” to the more intimate “trust fall.” We moved into a discussion of the Road to Emmaus. One or two students spoke. The other 20 sat in silence. The pastors did no better.
In subsequent meetings between the two churches, we focused on sharing new experiences and illuminating the gifts of each youth group. At a talent-show fundraiser, the acts ranged from a series of spoken-word poems about the experience of black youth in Milwaukee to an impromptu bell choir to a cello duet. We also spent an afternoon at the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, encountering a foreign space and foreign traditions together. Using each other’s space equally helped bring our congregations together.
During Lent, Christ Church invited parishioners to share formative moments in their journey of faith with the congregation. One Sunday, Christine, the mother of a Christ Church pilgrim and Kayla, a youth pilgrim from All Peoples, stood together at the pulpit. Christine spoke about how afraid she was about this partnership initially. She confessed to locking car doors in the All Peoples neighborhood. Even more vulnerably, she admitted that feelings of discomfort and fear are still there; they haven’t been resolved, but they are being challenged and exposed in new ways through this experience. Following Christine’s testimony, Kayla offered her testimony in the form of a spoken-word poem that said, in part:
Frustration has officially / Taken its toll on me / School, teachers, work / Students, fights / Lack of learning / Lack of concentration / It’s like they don’t care / If you fail or not / They in it for the / Money, not cuz they / Truly care about you / And ya future. … All black people are not dumb, / Or ghetto / Actually a lot of us are smart, / They just don’t show it / Cuz they think it’ll be “lame” / Or “not cool” / But you know what, it ain’t doing / Nothing but making it hard / For people that really wanna be something in life.
St. Francis and St. Clare
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (1 John 4:18). Along the way we acknowledged that our fears have not been banished. Our love for one another is not yet made complete. Once our group made it to Assisi, though, we found an example that helped guide us toward perfect love.
In 1997, people from all around the world donated money to pave a path from Assisi down into the valley to the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels. At the trailhead the words pax et bonum are etched into the stone. At the beginning of this 45-minute walk each pilgrim was paired with a prayer partner, a pilgrim from the other church. They were given two prompts: “When was a moment when you felt afraid?” and “When was a moment when you felt safe?”
A month after returning from the pilgrimage, I noticed a change in Liam, one of the pilgrims from Christ Church. His language flowed with a passion for Jesus that startled me and some of his fellow youth-group members. One evening I asked Liam what changed and he told me how, while praying at the San Damiano cross, he felt the presence of God like never before. Immediately after sensing this presence he was paired with Jay, a pilgrim from All Peoples, to make the walk into the valley. Liam was startled and moved by the story he heard from Jay, a story of a broken family in which fear is a consistent part of the environment. Liam encountered firsthand someone whose father communicates largely through abusive language. Moved by his experience at the cross, Liam listened intently to Jay’s story of pain and familial anguish.
Outside the basilica is a park with a statue of St. Clare and St. Francis on a picnic. The story says that as Clare and Francis ate together their love for God was so great they appeared as pillars of fire to people on the mountain above. Their love had been perfected and had cast out all fear.
Liam told me how Jay expressed a conviction that God is with him through abuse. In fact, Jay told the story of identifying deeply with Francis’s renunciation of his father and being taken in by the church. Liam began to wonder, “What is it that makes his faith so strong?” He was delighted when at a school volleyball match last fall he saw a lanky figure running across the court and realized it was Jay. The two students spoke for a while between breaks in the volleyball game, rejoicing that their sharing of fear had created their friendship. Did anyone notice the pillars of fire on that volleyball court?
The Pilgrimage Continues
Doris Donnelly once wrote that pilgrimage differs from other sorts of travel in that “community is formed for pilgrims; community is not a desideratum for tourists. The tourist usually prefers to maintain his/her status quo” (“Pilgrims and Tourists: Conflicting Metaphors for the Christian Journey to God,” Spirituality Today, Spring 1992, pp. 20-36).
Through pilgrimage, Christ Church and All Peoples learned that our partnership does not prefer the status quo. After encountering each other at the depth of walking alongside one another, we continue to ask how our partnership might grow rather than fall back into our previous models of mission. How do we continue to engage youth together? How do we encourage engagement between adults from the two communities?
These questions and their answers continue to be pressing concerns for many communities. Fear too often dominates conversation and action surrounding racial reconciliation. We are all far from realizing the perfect love that casts away fear. Yet we see signs of hope. We see organizations like the Franciscan Pilgrimages Program that imagine in the ancient tradition of pilgrimage a new way to help bring together Christian communities. We see churches from different denominations willing to cast aside their traditional boundaries and work together. We see parents and teenagers step into their fears and talk and walk alongside one another. And in all these things, we see Jesus lead his disciples, causing them to burn from within with love for him and for one another.
The Rev. Seth A. Raymond is assistant to the rector at Christ Church, Whitefish Bay.