“To go on a pilgrimage is to make the body and its actions express the desires and beliefs of the soul.”Rebecca Solnit, from Wanderlust: A History of Walking
Traditionally, if you went on a pilgrimage, it would lead to an important religious destination like Canterbury, Mecca, the Holy Land, or the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela at the end of the Camino. Today, however, the word “pilgrimage” is used more broadly and casually for any number of spiritual expeditions. More than privileging a destination, it emphasizes the journey itself.
In the summer of 2019, I joined a group of 25 youth and adults from the Diocese of Olympia on a week-long creation care pilgrimage from Seattle, across the Olympic Peninsula, to the Pacific Ocean. Our journey was inspired by the “Pathways Pilgrimage for Youth” undertaken in the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California with Former Presiding Bishop, the Right Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, who also led our pilgrimage. The Right Reverend Jefferts Schori, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and earned a Ph.D. in oceanography, brought a unique perspective as a scientist, faith leader, and local that helped us focus this pilgrimage on facing the harsh realities of climate change as people of faith. Through our journey, the beautiful land and waters as well as the people we met enabled us to reimagine care for creation as an essential part of our faith.
We started our youth pilgrimage at Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, and then we walked through forests and over rivers to the Pacific coast. Like the journeys of old, we met people along the way who broadened our perspectives. We stayed overnight at waystations and were fed by strangers who became friends. We listened to stories, saw new things, and learned new ways. At the end we were transformed by what we had experienced.
Interested in creating your own pilgrimage experience? Here are some tips for success along with the story of how these suggestions actually played out on our journey.
1. Scout It Out
Months in advance, head out for a dry run to see if the journey you’re planning on paper is actually feasible for your teen pilgrims. Explore the potential of the surrounding areas: Which existing sites, landmarks, and activities will dovetail with the agenda and themes you’re generating?
We loosely followed the Olympic Discovery Trail, which used to be a railway line and is now a walking path complete with tunnels and bridges. We designed our agenda to focus on landmarks along the way like the Elwha River, site of the country’s biggest dam removal project. There we witnessed miraculous river restoration and met members of the local tribe, the Lower Elwha Klallam, who had courageously advocated for the dam’s demolition and the rebirth of the river.
2. Discern a Theme
You may be covering a lot of territory. Adhering to a theme will help you focus on what matters the most and will bring cohesion to what could otherwise be a wide range of experiences, planned and serendipitous, which may be challenging to process at the end of a long day.
We settled on “Creation Care” as our overarching theme based on Jefferts Schori’s expertise, the incredible beauty and particularities of the land we would traverse, and because we knew this was a huge concern for youth in our local churches. To live out this theme, we spent several hours each day walking; practiced our faith outdoors, often in silence; ate seasonal, local food where possible; and visited places where people who were passionate about creation had brought about remarkable restoration. Evening programs facilitated by Jefferts Schori and other guest speakers helped provide a capstone for each day. Daily one-word themes helped us further refine our focus: “Ocean” on Monday, for example, and “Healing” on Thursday.
3. Involve Churches along the Way
Reach out to the churches on your route and invite them to be waystations. Not only does this broaden the impact of your pilgrimage, but it also introduces the youth to a variety of faith expressions.
We started the pilgrimage with a blessing and lunch at Saint Mark’s Cathedral and then stayed overnight at five churches along the route during the ensuing days. Each community was so excited about hosting the youth. Every night we were met with delicious meals lovingly prepared by church members who ate with us and joined us in our evening programs.
4. Recruit Young Adult Leaders
In addition to the easy camaraderie between youth and adults in their 20s and 30s, these leaders inspire a level of respect and admiration among youth.
Added perk: Our YA leaders brought a laptop, and they would blog and share pictures from the day during the evenings so family members back home could track our progress. They also encouraged the youth to contribute as guest bloggers.
5. Prioritize Music and Liturgy
Daytime will be filled with activities and movement, so it’s essential to provide daily spiritual bookends to help your pilgrims be still, express gratitude, and process what’s happening in their minds and hearts.
We had a team of five working solely on this aspect of the pilgrimage. They wrote custom liturgies to fit the creation care theme for morning and evening prayer. They created spiral-bound journals with laminated covers for each pilgrim that included prayers, poems, blessings, and space to write. During the pilgrimage, they made sure that every youth participant had a chance to lead services, and they pulled together an ad hoc band complete with guitars, ukuleles, a mandolin, and a harmonium.
6. Flex Your Network
Put out your feelers for the people who can enhance your pilgrimage with their specialized knowledge. If they don’t have the bandwidth to be on your planning team, ask them to help you in an advisory capacity. If they can’t be with you the whole time, ask them to join the pilgrimage for a day or two.
A few of the extraordinary people who not only generously contributed to this effort, but joined us on the pilgrimage are:
- Brian Sellers-Petersen, west coast advocate for the Episcopal Church’s Good News Gardens, who connected us with a beekeeper, a working church garden, and a native plant nursery
- Timi Vann, member of Saint Mark’s Cathedral and Western Regional Coordinator for NOAA, who connected us with the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and also served as liaison to members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe
- Lisa Graumlich, also a member of Saint Mark’s and Dean Emerita of the University of Washington School of the Environment, who hooked us up with the Olympic Natural Resources Center in Forks
- The Rev. Bill Harper, retired rector of Grace, Bainbridge Island, who shared his extensive expertise with youth pilgrimages from decades of backpacking with teens in the wilderness; he also knew the owner of a pristine, undeveloped property along our route and arranged for us to camp there (follow this link for Bill’s thoughts on pilgrimages)
7. Build in the Fun!
A pilgrimage can be grueling. Territory and topography will always be a challenge, so be sure to make time for play.
The hospitality team at one of our churches, St. Paul’s, Port Townsend, devised a scavenger hunt through their historic downtown that ended up at the ice cream shop with treats for all. We went kayaking. We built a campfire, made s’mores, and sang songs. We peered into microscopes to observe sea life and through a telescope to view the night sky. And my personal favorite: We all got to swim (and shower!) mid-week at the YMCA across from one of our host churches. Priceless.
A Final Word
One of our young pilgrims and a talented writer, Ava Reymond, reflected on the week in the Pilgrimage blog: “This journey has brought me closer to God, closer to my planet, and closer to people as a whole.” Ava’s words are a testimony to the life-changing power and possibility of the pilgrimage.
Resources and Sample Materials
- Pilgrimage Schedule Overview
- Journal (designed by Ann Strickland, one of the members of our planning team, in cooperation with the Music and Liturgy team)
- Video (created by Josh deLacy, a member of our planning team and young adult leader, to capture the pilgrimage high points)
- Blog (designed by Josh deLacy)
- Reflections from Participants (considering what we learned and what behaviors we will change as a result of this week, collected at the Eucharist on the beach)
Note: The Diocese of Olympia is starting to plan for a second Youth Creation Care Pilgrimage in the summer of 2024 through the San Juan Islands. If you would like more info about it, please reach out!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on March 30, 2023. It has been updated on March 31, 2023 to correct two errors on our part (not the author’s): using the appropriate spelling for the name of Saint Mark’s Cathedral (in place of abbreviating “saint”) and adding a needed apostrophe to “Saint Mark’s” in the footer photo credit.
Featured image of pilgrimage group photo where the Elwha River meets the Salish Sea in western Washington is by Greg Hester
Photos of Jefferts Schori blessing a pilgrim and of a group practicing for evening liturgy are by Denise Brumbaugh
Photo of the blessing of pilgrims at Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, WA is provided by Saint Mark’s
Photo of pilgrims preparing to kayak is by the author, Valerie Reinke
Photo of Eucharist at the beach on the edge of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary is by Timi Vann