Just Walk to Jerusalem

One of St Brides’ congregation, Lynn McAllister, took part in Amos Trust’s Just Walk to Jerusalem this year, in which a group of people walked from London to Jerusalem to apologise for the consequences of the Balfour Declaration for the Palestinians.  You can view a short video of the last stages of this journey using the link below:

It's very simple – we walked from London to Jerusalem – 3,300km, across 11 countries in 147 days, to ask for full equal rights for everybody who calls the Holy Land home. This is the story.

If you would like to hear more about Lynn’s experiences, please contact her at lynnmc@uwclub.net.  She would be happy to give a presentation

Lynn did the walk in two stages and the following is the talk Lynn gave at St Brides on 15th October.

1. Why the Pilgrimage

For me, the desire to do a pilgrimage went back a few years, the appeal being to step out of the general busyness of life, clear a space, and through that, deepen my awareness of God.  Then towards the end of last year I came across Amos Trust’s idea of Just Walk to Jerusalem, which had as its basis 3 principles:

Solidarity: Walk as an act of solidarity with Palestinians who do not have freedom of movement. 

This was made clear at the launch event when a Palestinian speaker from Gaza was moved by what we were doing but also very saddened by the fact that he couldn’t join us, because he wouldn’t be allowed into parts of his homeland.

Peace: Walk with Palestinian and Israeli peace activists on the long road to peace and justice.

I feel like I was doing that symbolically, but when I go back on Friday, I will be actually doing it.

And Penance: Walk as an act of penance for Britain’s 100 year-long failure to ensure Palestinian rights.

So, for me, having been involved with Palestinian solidarity for a number of years, it was an ideal opportunity, combining cause with personal. 

Even so two days before I was due to go I wrote in my journal:  ‘I am beginning to feel nervous about the trip, getting lots of tummy butterflies. Thinking why did I get myself into this? Why am I leaving my safe, secure, comfort zone?’

But of course that is the very point. To quote a fellow companion.

“To be a pilgrim is to be on a path of adventure, to move out of our old comfort zones of certainty and to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty, with surprises and with the unpredictable”

2. Starting Out

It wasn’t an easy start.  I got the train down to London on the Saturday, attended the launch event & then at 5pm did an 18 ½ mile walk to our first destination. That was gruelling. For the first few days my mind felt scattered, I emptied & repacked my whole backpack at each accommodation, trying to think which bit of my backpack have I put this in, where did I put that, what’s the best way to arrange my belongings?   On the third morning I discovered I had lost 2 pairs of trousers and to this day do not know how that happened, but I was really agitated about it, I’d packed carefully for the journey & now I hadn’t got what I needed, and on top of that 1 of the pairs of trousers were what Linda had kindly lent me, but Linda was very gracious about it.  

But after a few days I got into a routine and got it so what I needed was accessible and then just unpacked the top layer. Our days also began to follow a regular pattern which was turn up for breakfast, pack day pack, large backpack on the van, say the morning liturgy, walk, have a picnic lunch, walk, check in to the accommodation, sign into wi-fi, rest, shower, wash clothes for the next day, go for an evening meal, sleep.  So in many ways pilgrimage is quite mundane.

But each morning began with the liturgy, and also one of the group would do a short reflection.  One of these reflections included a quote from RS Thomas’s poem ‘Somewhere’, which said ‘the point of travelling is not to arrive, but to return home laden with pollen you shall work up into the honey the mind feeds on’. 

And looking back over the over the 12 weeks of walking, I did collect a lot of pollen.  There was so much I experienced, learnt, encountered, too much to talk about today, and it’s been difficult choosing what to include, but hopefully this morning I can give you a flavour of what was very much my personal experience of pilgrimage. 

3. Silence and Companionship

As well as the daily morning liturgy, probably on average once a week, we would have a silent hour of walking, normally after lunch.  We would repeat the liturgy, but just leave the last 2 lines to break the silence at the end.  I loved the silent hours.  I normally find in prolonged periods of silence or meditation that my body gets all twitchy and it’s just hard to do.  But in having the body taken care of through the rhythmic movement of walking this helped me focus and still the mind and become more aware of my walking, my surroundings, the smells and the sounds.  And the fact that the whole group was intentionally silent, even though we were still walking alongside each other was very powerful.

But it wasn’t only the silent moments that were precious.  Talking to people was also.  And there was the time to really listen to people without time constraints, hours every day to hear other people’s stories, thoughts, insights, ramblings even.  There was no rush so it was easy to be patient with people, no need to be thinking ‘will you just get to the point’ and I felt able and privileged to just be in the present moment.

It felt like being given the gift of time, not something to be under-estimated.

4. Refreshing Places of Worship

Places of worship whether in SE England, France or Italy played a significant part on the pilgrimage. Nearly all the churches we passed were open and often it was just us there.  On one of these occasions Naomi spontaneously started singing quietly Ubi Caritas and slowly we all joined in, that was a special moment.

There were occasions when we had cathedrals to ourselves, like when our small group said the liturgy in Reims cathedral one early morning, it was awe-inspiring. 

Churches, big and small, were a real time of refreshment, both physically and spiritually.  Places to stop and be silent, but we also appreciated the coolness of the buildings as they provided such respite from the heat and also they were places where we could just sit down, take off our walking shoes and give the feet a rest.

I copied down the following words from 1 of these churches in Lentilles in France

If you come from here or elsewhere,
Whatever the country you come from,
Welcome in this church!
This church could be a place to rest, discover, meditate, or gather yourself!
This church could also simply be a step in your pilgrimage, where you can relieve joys and pains
This place is yours!
I thought what a great invitation.

One Sunday we were walking through a largish town in Italy (Bellgioioso) and a mass was taking place.  The church was in the busy, main square where there were lots of people sat in cafes but the doors of the church were open (possibly because of the heat), and it felt like the church was part of and not separate from.  The sounds of the congregation chanting Alleluias wafted into the busyness, it was really moving.

5. Hospitality

Over and over again I, and the rest of the group, were on the receiving end of generous hospitality, people going out of their way to bring us some comfort, whether it was to open up their garden, set up tables for us to eat off, provide shelter, bring us drinks or food.  Which is why I chose the reading I did – though to me they were the angels.  One abiding thing I will bring home is the many, many occasions of the unsolicited and unexpected kindnesses of people along the way. 

Some were quite amusing, like the lady in a small village who must have seen us walking down the road towards her house, at 7am one Sunday morning, and she came out in her nightie and asked if we wanted her to unlock the church to look around.  So out she came, still in her nightie and opened up.

Then there was the man in his towelling dressing gown who called to us from his first floor balcony – we were sitting on the edge of a fountain eating lunch.  He asked if we wanted use the toilet and when 2 of us said yes we would, he pointed to a building so we thought ok that’s nice of him to point it out, it wasn’t an obvious toilet, but then he reappeared on the balcony with a key and threw it down because you needed a key to get into the public toilet.  It might not sound like much, but things that catered to our basic needs were very important and much appreciated.

One afternoon, on one of the particularly hot days most of us were almost out of water, and what we did have was very warm.  We’d passed a number of cafes that were closed.  We were walking on a ridge at the back of the village when we passed a small lodging.  A man leaned out of the window and asked if I wanted a tea or a coffee.  Unfortunately we couldn’t stop at this point, so I said No thanks, but I’d love some water – he filled my plastic bottle with freezing cold water from his fridge, it was unbelievably refreshing.  The rest of the group followed and he filled up everyone’s bottle.  It felt like the cafes we’d seen from a distance, but were then closed were like mirages and the man was like our oasis in the desert.

Another time we’d just arrived in Bologna and were resting on the steps of San Paulo church and out of the blue a man appeared with a tray of 11 beakers of cold cola.  There were 11 of us so he’d clearly counted us, come from the café just over the road and then offered the tray round without saying anything.    Again, as well as being physically refreshed, I was moved by this simple, thoughtful, heart-warming act of care.

6. Closing Thoughts

It’s timely that I’ve been able to share today because I am going back this Friday to rejoin the walkers and the plan is to be in Jerusalem, in St George’s cathedral, on 2nd November.  These last two weeks will be very different, as we walk with local peace activists in the West Bank.  I believe a visit to Banksie’s Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem is also planned.

But back to the walking I’ve already done, I think though the following words (which aren’t mine) capture my own experience of pilgrimage:

The path that a pilgrim treads has a history and a spirit. Along its way, there are points…. a church, a town square, a hilltop, a beautiful point…… and there are moments…. a person looking up and smiling, a salute from a complete stranger, a chance encounter, a moment of serendipity or synchronicity, or a moment of hospitality, kindness, or generosity. The path joins these points, and moments, giving opportunities to pray, and think, and immerse oneself in the spirituality of the place…. or the moment…. or of the progression from one place to another.