God is Alive in the World: Reflections on Walking Together on Sacred Ground


November 14, 2014

Hey, that’s the guy from Channel Three.” That’s what some elderly gentlemen gathered in a corner at Dunkin’ Donuts® said when they saw me. I guess carrying a shepherd’s staff (from a shepherd of real sheep) gave me away as the subject of a news report the night before: “Bishop Walks Worcester County.”

The pilgrimage received a lot of attention from the media and they got most of the facts right – although, Betsy and I were both very surprised to read in Worcester Magazine that we have three grandchildren. Who knew? (We feel badly we missed so many birthdays.) There were great pictures on our diocesan Facebook page of the people I met along the way and the prayer services we held in the streets. And, there were affirming and funny comments on those pictures – e.g., my sister-in-law, commenting on a prayer service in which we are all standing in a parking lot, “Do you have to pray standing up? Can’t you ever let him sit down?”midday prayer upton 008

After all that attention on what we were doing for those four days, let’s reflect on what it all means. Here are a few of my thoughts:

The Spirit is at work in our work. The pilgrimage gave me the rare opportunity to visit our church members where they work, instead of where I work. Doctors, nurses, medical staff, the sheriff, addiction counselors, social workers, librarians , farmers, college teachers and students showed me what they do and how God is alive in that work. Church is not the place where we find God. Church is the place where we celebrate that “aliveness” of God’s dynamic Spirit which is around us all the time.

God is found in conversation. Walking and talking does not seem very profound, but the gospel writer Luke tells us something life changing happened as three people walked seven miles to Emmaus. Engaging each other in meaningful dialogue is an experience of the Holy. That might be why the words “conversation” and “conversion” have the same root. And it is why the Church needs to listen as much as it needs to proclaim. My walk was not a preaching tour but a listening tour.

st matthew clark 053There is great hope in public witness. A moment that will always stand out for me was gathering with members of St. Matthew’s Church in Worcester, many of whom are Liberian, on the street in front of the church. My friend, the Rev. Nancy Strong, hijacked the name of the pilgrimage and on the church’s message board called it “The Bishop’s Ebola Walk.” In that prayer on the street, with cars slowly driving by in city traffic, we lifted up the names of friends and relatives who died from the disease, we asked for God’s healing power and for God’s protection. We asked for an end to the stigma being attached to West Africans in this country. And we asked it while holding one another’s hands.

God calls us to reinvent ourselves (religious word: transformation). From the start of the pilgrimage at Trinity Milford (our most eastern parish) to the ending at Christ Church, Fitchburg, I kept seeing evidence of reinvention (transformation). Milford was once a prosperous factory town because most of the looms bought throughout the world were made there. The Draper family ran that business and surrounded the factory with very nice homes for the thousands of workers. (The Drapers came from the Utopian movement popular in the mid 1800’s and had a strong sense of social obligation.)  The factory has long since closed but is still there and it is huge. Larger than many of the closed factories I have seen in Massachusetts. Here is the good news. Milford has come back from that loss. It is once again a vibrant community. Why? They reinvented themselves. And there is much evidence of a reinvented, transformed city of Worcester. day 1 - farmG 012

I went to the Community Harvest Project which supplies fresh food for so many in need. They told me of the many changes they made there to what they do and how they do it. More stories of reinvention in health care at UMass Memorial Hospital and Medical School.  Ascentria (formerly, Lutheran Social Services,) is in the midst major change in how they do mission. I heard numerous personal stories of transformation at Dismas House, at Clark University, and at the Worcester County House of Corrections. At that jail, there is an innovative and life-changing program for incarcerated people suffering from addiction. In conversation with staff members who run the program, they told me of the many times they made big changes in the program to better serve the real needs of the participants. Transformation seems to be God’s way in the world. Will we let it be God’s way in the Church?

day1 bt milford upton 016God’s creation in New England is awesomely beautiful. Even though it was far past “peak” foliage season when I walked, the many lakes, streams and forests we are blessed to enjoy here are God’s gift to us. In prayer I felt united with all our churches that engaged our “Creation Season” and with all who passionately work to stop climate change.

When the House of Bishops met last in Taiwan, we were encouraged to “expand our apostolic imagination” and we were shown how by our Asian brothers and sisters. In this four-day pilgrimage my “apostolic imagination” was expanded by the faithful people and ever-changing landscape of our Worcester corridor.

I am already looking forward to the next two pilgrimages – Pioneer Valley and the Berkshires. I look forward to hearing about our church: “hey, that’s the Church that celebrates God’s aliveness in the world.”