Anglican Year Student
“Social justice as spiritual discipline” – these are the words behind an exciting invitation to a spring break intensive experience to go on an urban pilgrimage in New York City. Led by the Rev. Valerie Fischer Bailey, an ordained Episcopal priest and Th.D. student at The General Theological Seminary, Urban Pilgrimage is a program that is intended to provide an experience and a model for outreach work that, rather than stopping at what “we” can do for “them,” highlights the larger structures and mechanisms which lead to conditions that keep so many struggling and disadvantaged.
During spring break, I was blessed to participate in one of these Urban Pilgrimages in New York City. We were a group of five pilgrims. Though I am from the Diocese of Southern Ohio, I am studying at General Seminary in New York, and took the subway up from the Close each day to join the group. The others, however, flew in from Texas and Florida. During the five days, we visited a range of churches for worship and to hear about, observe, and participate in outreach programs. The locations were distinctive and different, and the call to social justice, so evident in the work we saw in the churches, became a spiritual discipline as we engaged in theological reflection, constantly returning to examine, question, and juxtapose these reflections with our own expectations.
The pilgrimage included visits to thriving urban churches with extensive outreach, crumbling urban churches, visits to religious communities, discussions with volunteers in other outreach programs, including Episcopal Development and Relief and the Episcopal Young Adult Service Corps, and a tour of the financial district.
The presentation that impacted us the most was by a man who described himself as “un-domiciled” to a confirmation class, and to us, at St. Mary’s Church, Manhattanville. He told the story of how he became homeless despite a high school degree and some college education; how he has made a living for himself; and how he became involved in advocacy, even as he remains un-domiciled. What was most poignant was watching a large group of distracted teens become utterly quiet and focused – and to know that they, as well as we, were struck by the man’s answer to one teen who asked, “What can we do for the homeless?” He was clear that, above all, he wants to be treated as a person, not as a thing.
After this spring pilgrimage for training future leaders of Urban Pilgrimages, I can see many applications for urban pilgrimage in my future work as an ordained person. First, I understand that the leaders of many Journey to Adulthood groups are eager for this kind of offering. I think that it would be a great resource for my diocese, especially for the youth. In addition, I can see this as a way in which I can live into my ordination in my other career as a college professor – I’m likely to be bivocational for the foreseeable future – in pilgrimages that I might plan with the college chaplain and community service director for college students. I know that people in their teens and twenties are deeply involved with community service, and I would love to fold this approach into that service, and foster the spiritual discipline of theological reflection and awareness as it nurtures a call to action.
This urban pilgrimage was nurtured directly by my formation at General. I came to General for the twice-daily chapel services, and the elegantly crafted Anglo-Catholic tradition we share. The formation I’ve experienced these last months was with me as we rode the trains all over Manhattan and northern New Jersey. The structure of our days was punctuated by common worship – Morning Prayer, Eucharist, Compline – shared with each other, and often with those who we visited. The powerful interaction between residential seminary life, especially chapel worship, and work in the world, was so very clear to me. I am grateful for the information – but especially for the formation – that I’ve experienced during this year.