Canadian youth pilgrims: “We have the power to move mountains”
Pilgrims visit Wanuskewin heritage site in Saskatchewan – “feeling a deep connection to the earth and First Peoples of our country.” Left to right: Maia Walker, Cassidy Deveau, Aidan Legault, Ayla Hamilton, Katelyn Cody. © Cassidy Deveau
30 July 2015
By Kristine Greenaway*
Young people on a pilgrimage across Canada are discovering what they call the “living ministry of Christ” as they meet groups of Christians who are making a difference in communities throughout the country.
Thirteen young members of the United Church of Canada, a member church of the World Council of Churches (WCC), are travelling from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans, a distance of 8000 km. It’s an inspiring experience for members of a generation that is coming of age in an era of environmental, financial and social crises.
“I am seeing that as people of faith we can do really great things in the world,” says Aidan Legault, 17. “We have the power to move mountains.”
The trip that began in Vancouver, 4 July, is scheduled to end in Corner Brook, 6 August. The United Church of Canada’s 42nd General Council gets underway in that city on 8 August. The young pilgrims are delegates with full voting rights. The objective of the pilgrimage is for them to meet people in rural and urban communities who are active in social justice and environmental advocacy.
“Taking part in this pilgrimage is a chance for me to be informed and bring youth points of view to General Council,” says Maia Walker, 18. “We are getting firsthand experience and we are learning in a faith community.”
Legault and Walker shared their reflections on the experience when in Toronto this week at the midpoint of the trip. The two expressed gratitude to the church for offering them opportunities to learn about, and be active in, social justice issues in their home communities. They see their participation in the pilgrimage and in the General Council as a way of “giving back” to their church.
“This pilgrimage is giving me the chance to discover the beauty of this country and its people,” says Legault. “I am seeing that people of faith can do really great things in this world. Like in Winnipeg at a church-run centre that welcomes refugees, where I saw how powerful the church is to help people from around the world who are marginalized.”
“I had a set idea of the church based on my home congregation, but now I see the differences,” Walker adds.
Learning and reflecting during pilgrimage
Walker, who is an artist and advocate for respect of gender identities in church and society, has been involved in the church and deeply committed to social justice concerns most of her life. Travelling across the country, she says, is broadening her perspective on the church and the range and complexities of the social issues it faces. She cites the example of meeting people with different and conflicting perspectives on what to do about extracting and transporting oil.
While travelling through the western province of Alberta, Walker met people who see the oil industry as a source of needed jobs in the province’s aboriginal communities. At the same time, she notes, aboriginal peoples in her home region in the adjacent province of British Columbia know that tankers carrying oil will harm the salmon fishing grounds on which their livelihoods depend.
Legault names the visit to an inner city parish serving homeless people in Vancouver on the Pacific Coast as a highlight of the pilgrimage so far. The mission at First United Church offers more than the traditional Sunday worship service, he says. People living in the streets are offered food, support and spiritual development. Legault was especially impressed by the attitude of mission workers.
“They treat these people with dignity, love and respect,” he says. “Secular society can stigmatize them. The church provides a safe place.”
Spirituality and faith are central to the pilgrimage experience for Legault and Walker.
“We are staying faithfully and spiritually grounded,” Legault explains. “We check in to share our experiences. Our leaders, Alana Martin and James Aitchison, are doing a wonderful job to animate that sharing and exploring. As we learn about our faith, we are learning about our world.”
The itinerary includes opportunities to visit deeply sacred places such as Wanuskewin Heritage Park, an aboriginal site in the province of Saskatchewan where Legault senses the “roots of spirituality.”
The pilgrimage experience will have lasting impact on Legault and Walker. While on the trip, Walker has made the decision to look seriously into training for ministry. Legault is planning on a career in politics.
* Kristine Greenaway is a former WCC Communication Director with extensive experience in covering stories about global and local ecumenism.
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