“The pilgrimage has been inspiring and uplifting. We have learned, we have experienced, we have worshipped, we have struggled, and we have partied. The best thing about it is that God is at the heart of all we have done. The pilgrimage has made me realize that faith can actually be alive and fresh in the modern world.” Charlotte, Liverpool pilgrim
While attending the Partnership for World Mission conference, we had the opportunity to hear an amazing faith story about the Liverpool Virginia Youth Pilgrimage, which is an initiative that has developed from the companion relationship between the Dioceses of Liverpool and Virginia. As the Rev. Canon Malcolm Rogers, Vicar of Huyton Quarry and Chair of the Anglican Partnerships and Links Forum of the Diocese of Liverpool, shared stories about the experiences of the youth pilgrims with the conference attendees, the energy in the room changed. People – from dioceses across the Church of England and several provinces in the Anglican Communion – were paying close attention. What we heard was an intriguing mixture of local and global mission, evangelism, a quest to connect the present with a shared past, and develop friendships and relationships that will last far into the future.
The Dioceses of Liverpool and Virginia have had a relationship since 1998 (following that year’s Lambeth Conference) and have continually sought to develop creative ways of partnering together. Beginning in 2011, the two dioceses developed teams of adults to help lead and shape a pilgrimage ministry and then solicited applications from youth ages 14-16 in both dioceses. Each of the youth pilgrims was provided with an adult mentor who would walk with them throughout the two-year journey and the youths’ vicars/rectors had to commit to support them and incorporate them into the life of their parish. All of the youth were required to participate in a team building retreat in early 2012 that focused on capacity building and setting goals – both personal and mission-related – for the pilgrimage.
In the months that followed, the teams met monthly for prayers, discussions on various topics, and regularly Skyped with each other in preparation for the Virginia pilgrims’ visit to Liverpool in June of 2012 and the Liverpool pilgrims’ visit to Virginia in August of 2013. A Facebook group, which is still very active, was also set up to facilitate regular conversation and sharing.
As the pilgrims prepared to visit each other, they came up with plans for social outreach in each of their cities. In Liverpool, this included working with children, visiting church schools, and serving dinner to and sharing conversations and prayers with 100+ elderly residents. In Virginia, the pilgrims worked with a local YMCA, designed games and social events for local children, and visited churches and the Diocese of Virginia’s Shrine Mont Camp. Pilgrimage leaders were very intentional about including theological reflection and prayer time each day. The Compline service quickly became a favorite of the pilgrims, especially the prayer “Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping. That awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.”
One of the areas on which the pilgrims chose to focus was the historic connection between Liverpool and Virginia through the transatlantic slave trade. Both dioceses committed to learn about and get a better understanding of the roles that their communities played in the slave trade. This included reading about the history of both Liverpool and Virginia, meeting with local historians, participating in workshops about a variety of topics including diversity and contemporary forms of slavery (e.g. human trafficking), visiting important historical sites, and walking the Richmond Slave Trail together.
According to Canon Rogers, the underlying focus of the pilgrimage initiative has been to help young people in both dioceses grow in their faith and come closer to Jesus. This has supported the young pilgrims’ efforts to grow in their spirituality, develop more self-confidence, and make connections with another part of the world. The pilgrimage initiative received a great deal of support from the 5 bishops in Liverpool and Virginia, all of whom spent significant amounts of time with the youth pilgrims, provided financial support for the pilgrimage, and held the pilgrims and leaders in prayer throughout the process.
The pilgrims’ local communities in England and the United States played a key role in the pilgrimage as well. They hosted events, shared resources, generously helped the youth with their fundraising efforts, and found themselves transformed by the experience. A parent of one of the pilgrims shared, “…the events of the past two years [have] had a further far-reaching impact than just the youth involved. I have personally spoken with people not linked with the young people about the fundraising and other activities that were undertaken. This in turn raised questions and had individuals reflecting on their own relationship or lack of with God.”
The youth pilgrimage has developed into a strong partnership built on relationship and understanding between two very different communities of young people. As one pilgrim wrote in a reflection, “I came into the pilgrimage feeling almost lonely within my faith and the pilgrimage has allowed me to meet young people who share the same belief as me. I’ve really felt accepted and part of the team, and I’ve really felt like my opinions and thoughts are really special. I have made friendships with people that I wouldn’t usually and I have learnt not to pre-judge people on appearance. I have realized I can do a lot more than I thought I could, physically and mentally, with God by my side.”
Joey, a pilgrim from Virginia, shared, “Before the pilgrimage, I wasn’t sure what I thought of religion or spirituality. It’s not so much that I had doubts, I simply hadn’t given it any thought at all. The pilgrimage woke me up, so to speak, it provided the impetus for some serious spiritual contemplation and reflection, which I had never had before. I feel as if I’m just starting to understand my faith, and it has started to play a larger role in my daily life since I visited Liverpool.”