Newark’s pilgrims gathered in prayer along their 80-mile journey.
Photos © 2016 by Cynthia Black

By Matthew Townsend

After more than 80 miles of walking, members of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark completed a six-day pilgrimage across New Jersey on July 30.

The journey, which began in Belvidere on the state’s western border, averaged 15 miles of walking per day and brought pilgrims to 20 Episcopal churches between the Delaware and Hudson rivers. Envisioned by the Rt. Rev. Mark Beckwith and organized by the Rev. John Mennell, the pilgrimage helped parishioners explore neighborhoods of the diocese and learn more about the diversity and challenges present in New Jersey.

“We suggested making a pilgrimage across the diocese as a way to get a different perspective on the incredible diversity in the diocese,” Mennell wrote via email. “In a relatively small geographic range you move from incredible wealth to extreme poverty. The space separating rural farmland from industrial blight is surprisingly small.”

Mennell, who serves as rector of St. Luke’s in Montclair and president of the diocese’s standing committee, said the pilgrimage was a “spiritual retreat with a challenging physical component.” After daily Morning Prayer, pilgrims would begin their walk with noonday prayer and Scripture bulletins in hand. Following dinner, “we gathered for Eucharist and then would dwell in the Word that we had carried with us through the day,” Mennell said. “We would reflect together on where we had encountered God that day and close the evening with Compline.”

Bishop Beckwith said via email that this time dwelling in the word — “reading texts to discern their wisdom and kindle our imagination” — provided the spiritual frame for the journey.

It was through the hospitality that pilgrims received, however, that God became most apparent.

“We set out with the desire to see what God was up to — in our rather large neighborhood,” Beckwith said. “And for me, God was most present in hospitality — by our hosts, by the care we offered to one another, and by the strangers who offered us ice-cold bottles of water from their cars during the heat of the day.”

Mennell agreed, saying pilgrims experienced incredible hospitality throughout their journey in the July heat. “A man who had been sent home from a worksite, because it was too hot to work, repeatedly brought iced water bottles to those whom he encountered,” he said. “We were offered rides in the heat and the rain by complete strangers. We were invited into homes and churches to sleep. We were fed in abundance along the way.”

Pilgrims also came to care for one another in the midst of their walk. “We shared in newly developed skills in foot care to treat the blisters that had formed on top of the blisters and other foot-related ailments,” Mennell said. “We prayed together and laughed together as we were broken open to see how much God cares for us all, on any journey we might make.”

The pilgrimage ended with a service of Holy Eucharist within a few feet of the Hudson River in Hoboken, across from Manhattan. “The Eucharist, which literally means thanksgiving, gathered up all of our gratitude and offered it back,” Beckwith said. “And during this weeklong sojourn, I realized – at an even deeper level, that the Eucharist is the consummate expression of hospitality — offered by Jesus, to us. Jesus’ extraordinary hospitality not only reinforces my commitment to join him on the journey of life in faith, it is the reason we made the pilgrimage in the first place.”

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