Across the U.S., Catholic pilgrims are walking together for racial justice
Pope Francis is not the only Catholic making penitential pilgrimages this year. In several cities in the United States, hundreds of pilgrims have participated in Catholic walking pilgrimages aimed at raising awareness of the cause of racial justice. Modern Catholic Pilgrim, the company organizing these pilgrimages, aims to reform the culture of the American Church—and even secular society—through the spiritual practices of hospitality and pilgrimage.
In May, the non-profit and the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., hosted the first week-long Walking Together pilgrimage. A group of seven college students walked 86 miles across central Minnesota on a pilgrimage to George Floyd Square. In September, in Louisville, Ky., where police killed Breonna Taylor on March 13, 2020, pilgrims walked the third annual pilgrimage for racial justice. In October, a group of pilgrims in Minneapolis held vigil and visited sacred sites to commemorate the genocide of Native Americans, invoking the intercession of Servant of God Black Elk and St. Kateri Tekakwitha. And in November, on the feast of St. Martin de Porres, another pilgrimage group will gather in Memphis for the second year in a row to walk and pray for racial justice.
But this movement of walking pilgrimages began with just one pilgrim.
Will Peterson, 30, the founder of Modern Catholic Pilgrim, made his first pilgrimage on a whim. He was a rising junior at the University of Notre Dame, interning in Chicago during the summer of 2012. After work one Friday, he took a train to Ottumwa, Iowa, about 300 miles west. Mr. Peterson spent that first night in Iowa sleeping under a tree. He called his journey a “proto-pilgrimage” because he didn’t have a prayer intention or clear destination. But he knew his purpose: practicing trust. “Like in Matthew—why do we worry, he clothes the lilies of the fields, he feeds the birds—I just wanted to trust God that this will be a good experience,” he said.
“We believe that through geographic pilgrimage and biblical hospitality, we might be able to transform our American society.”
The next night, it looked like rain. Mr. Peterson attended a Saturday night vigil Mass, staying afterward to pray for several hours in front of the tabernacle. As he prayed, the priest let him be and left, locking the doors for the night. Mr. Peterson slept on a pew and took the train back to Chicago the next day.
Over the next year, Mr. Peterson read texts at Notre Dame that deepened his faith, including G. K. Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis of Assisi and the writings of Dorothy Day. These saints’ embrace of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience and their dedication to the biblical practice of hospitality had convinced him that trust in God and biblical hospitality were “core aspects of the faith.”
During spring break in his senior year, Mr. Peterson took a train to Rugby, N.D., where he began his second attempt at pilgrimage. He asked the pastor at the local church if he could stay for three days. “I wanted to explore whether or not we had a biblically hospitable church in the United States,” he said. He spent three days in Rugby and became something of a local pilgrim celebrity.
The experience was so fulfilling that he thought others might want to participate in something similar. Thus Modern Catholic Pilgrim was born. Mr. Peterson and his colleagues seek to instill the practice of geographical pilgrimage in the United States in conjunction with the art of hospitality. “We believe that through geographic pilgrimage and biblical hospitality, we might be able to transform our American society,” said Mr. Peterson. They host a dozen or so pilgrimages each year, and Mr. Peterson helps coordinate hospitality for the pilgrimage groups with local hosts.
Mr. Peterson began to think about how this spiritual practice of pilgrimage that meant so much to him could be a means to foster racial reconciliation.
Mr. Peterson and his wife live in the Twin Cities, which became the epicenter of a renewed conversation about racial justice after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Mr. Peterson began to think about how this spiritual practice of pilgrimage that meant so much to him could be a means to foster racial reconciliation.
Last fall, Mr. Peterson approached Patrick Martin, the assistant director of campus ministry at St. John’s University in St. Cloud, Minn., to see if the college would be interested in a pilgrimage for racial justice that would start at the university and end at George Floyd Square. From the first conversation, he found a believer.
“When Will approached me, I was like, this is perfect,” said Mr. Martin over Zoom. St. John’s campus ministry had never offered a trekking pilgrimage before. They had led hikes out to the Stella Maris chapel near the abbey on campus—a favorite spot of monastic visitors like Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O. “But we’d done nothing of this kind, where we just hoofed it for the whole week,” Mr. Martin said. He led seven college students on an 86-mile walk across central Minnesota, most of it following a new bike path called the Mississippi Regional Trail.
For most of those seven college pilgrims, the concept of a walking pilgrimage was unfamiliar. And most of them had never walked nearly as much as they did that week in May. In addition to spiritual formation in small group meetings, the pilgrims were supposed to prepare physically for the trek—their longest day of walking was 19 miles. But as busy college students, few had the time to train.
Mr. Peterson hopes his organization lends support to local groups to build a culture of pilgrimage here in the United States—and, as he noted, to create a culture of hospitality that enriches both host and guest.
They began on Monday, May 9, at St. John’s University—during a tornado warning. Courtney Huiras was one of the first students to show up. She said she sat outside in the rain with another pilgrim for several minutes until the rest of the group showed up.
Huiras, a sophomore at St. Benedict’s, the sister college of St. John’s, said that she first learned about the pilgrimage this past January online, and thought to herself, “There’s no way I’m going to do that”; 80 miles of walking sounded too daunting. But Pat Martin kept encouraging her to join, and she eventually said yes.
Along the route, they stayed at four different homes of Catholic parishioners and at a Lutheran parish. The pilgrims said their journey, and the final destination of George Floyd Square, sparked a lot of conversations about racial justice with their hosts.
Mr. Peterson said one of Modern Catholic Pilgrim’s goals is to “make pilgrimage accessible.” International pilgrimage, Mr. Peterson said, “is set up for the 1 percent who can fly to Rome or the Holy Land or take a month off to do the Camino de Santiago.” So he hopes his organization lends support to local groups to build a culture of pilgrimage here in the United States—and, as Mr. Peterson noted, to create a culture of hospitality that enriches both host and guest. Mr. Peterson has been building an online “hospitality network” on Modern Catholic Pilgrim’s site to help connect pilgrims to potential hosts, even when the company cannot broker the connection directly.
Rev. Fuller said that the George Floyd Square Memorial, like Golgotha, is a crime scene.
In the months leading up to the pilgrimage in May, Mr. Peterson asked Catholic parishes along the pilgrimage route to find families who might be able to host large groups of pilgrims. He said a few priests were unwilling or unsure of how to make the ask to their parishioners or were concerned about liability. But, he said, most parishes were excited about the chance to support young people on the pilgrimage and were accepting of their nontraditional destination of George Floyd Square. Mr. Martin said the journey was the first time he had “owned the identity of a pilgrim.”
When they reached Minneapolis that Saturday, May 14, the college pilgrims stayed at the St. Jane House, a house of hospitality run by the Visitation Sisters in North Minneapolis. The Rev. Rozenia Fuller, one of the pastors in the community who ministers at George Floyd Square, met them for dinner that night, and witnessed the strong community they had built together on the road.
Trained at Princeton Divinity School, Rev. Fuller is a Baptist minister who has maintained a ministry of presence at the square for the past two years. Rev. Fuller said that the George Floyd Square Memorial, like Golgotha, is a crime scene. And that it is a sacred place, because “the community there has decided that love is central—that they will center themselves around love,” he said by phone.
“It’s a space of power. It’s a space of pain and it’s a space of promise,” she added.
Ms. Mulligan said that Mr. Peterson’s invitation to co-sponsor a pilgrimage in the fall of 2020 resonated with their goal of giving Black Catholics another way to engage in this discussion of racial justice.
As happens at traditional pilgrimage sites, Rev. Fuller has encountered pilgrims and visitors from all over the world in George Floyd Square.
“What happens on 38th and Chicago affects folks so much in France that they come here. Folks come in and almost miss their flights just to go to George Floyd Square, even just for 10 minutes,” Rev. Fuller said.
Each of these Walking Together pilgrimages invokes the patronage of Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman. Speaking to the U.S. bishops’ conference in 1989, Sister Bowman shared her experience as a Black Catholic woman in the United States and called for the church to stand with her. “Today we’re called to walk together in a new way toward that Land of Promise and to celebrate who we are,” she said in her address.
Janice Mulligan, the associate director in the Office of Multicultural Ministry at the Archdiocese of Louisville, finds that these pilgrimages offer a space for literal walking together and for learning about how to accompany each other better. Ms. Mulligan, who focuses much of her work on African American ministries, said that Mr. Peterson’s invitation to co-sponsor a pilgrimage in the fall of 2020 resonated with their goal of giving Black Catholics another way to engage in this discussion of racial justice. “His whole premise about biblical hospitality resonated with what was going on and the kind of things we were trying to do,” Ms. Mulligan said.
Ms. Mulligan said the Walking Together pilgrimages are powerful because they take a familiar concept—pilgrimage—and reimagine it in the contemporary context of a polarized and divided American society. And, in its reimagining, pilgrimage helps ground participants in their communities, and find ways through division. “I like the way we can come together, walk together and find holy places in our local community,” Ms. Mulligan said. “These experiences are helping people to better understand the scope of where racism is touching various parts of our communities, and specifically our church,” she said.