Walk to Jeruseleum, a spiritual journey
Brandon resident Nancy Simpson, 62, spent six years caring for her late husband, Frank, who died three years ago from a heart condition.
The experience taught her life is short. So, when St. Jude Catholic Church of Pearl started a Lenten program to encourage healthy physical and spiritual living, Simpson didn't hesitate to sign up.
Since January, she's been taking a Walk to Jerusalem. The concept is simple. There are about 7,550 miles between the Pearl church and Jerusalem.
Church members must collectively walk that distance during Lent while incorporating mediation and prayer into their exercise. So far, Simpson has contributed about 100 miles.
"Everything about my husband's illness made me appreciate life more," Simpson said. "Walking gives me a chance to think about what gifts I have and how fortunate I was to be able to help him those six years. Being alone with God, you are able to concentrate more on that. You start to notice the simplest things like birds, squirrels, the trees budding, the sun shining on your face, the cool breeze after you've worked up a sweat."
Rhonda Bowden, director of liturgy and pastoral care at St. Jude, brought Walk to Jerusalem to the church this year. She heard about it while taking an online religion course.
"I was looking for ways to incorporate healthy living," she said. "This is a wonderful way of trying to increase our well-being of body, mind and spirit during the weeks leading up to Easter. As Catholics, we observe Lent 40 days prior to Easter as a time of repentance. I'm sure you've probably heard of folks giving up something for Lent. This was a way of taking on something new."
Walk to Jerusalem encourages participants to exercise. They are also given a packet containing scripture, suggested activities and weekly prayer cards. Handouts are provided that discuss the geographic regions, cultures, food and lifestyles of the countries they are symbolically traveling through.
"Our initial goal was to accumulate the 7,550 miles it would take for us to get to Jerusalem in 12 weeks," Bowden said. "We wanted to be there for Easter. However, the response was so overwhelming, we ended up having over 400 parishioners sign up and amassed over 2,600 miles the first week. That's when we decided to make a few side trips because we were getting to Jerusalem so quickly."
The "side trips" included stops in France, Turkey, Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Morocco and Northern Africa. Last week, parishioners had walked more than 22,000 miles. Some miles were acquired by playing golf, soccer, doing physical therapy, cycling, jogging and running. Twenty minutes of exercise is recognized as one mile.
Bowden, who participated by walking with her husband, said the church will give a final report of miles traveled the week after Easter. The Michigan-based St. John Health System created Walk to Jerusalem in 2003.
"You can adapt it to your group of walkers," said Sally Sterr, a St. John administrative assistant. "We've had people use it in elementary schools for their kids."
Walk to Jerusalem typically begins the week of Jan. 25 and runs through Holy Week.
A fall version, Walk to Bethlehem, begins in September with the intent of reaching Bethlehem by Christmas.
Other churches around the country have adopted the program. Some serve healthy foods from the areas through which they "walk," while others count good deeds as one mile.
St. Jude member Dan Bokros, 54, has contributed more than 100 miles. He logged most while walking his dog, Lucy.
"We try to do it every day," said the Pearl resident. "We generally walk about 10-12 miles a week. My dog loves it. Every day at the same time, she comes and lets me know she's ready to go walking. It gives me time to think, reflect and clear my mind. I don't think I'll be able to quit now."
It's something Simpson also plans to stick with after Easter.
"After taking care of a sick loved one, you realize life is very short, and you start to praise God every day for letting you see and enjoy the things you ordinarily would ignore," she said. "I will continue it because it does increase your awareness of how much love, patience and care that the father gives us."