Mileage program takes parish on walk to Jerusalem

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Parishioners of St. Thomas à Becket Church in Reston know that it's precisely 5,925 miles from their church to the holy city of Jerusalem, and they are using this fact to perform a unique Lenten devotion. "Walk to Jerusalem" is a program that helps parish members grow healthy, both spiritually and physically.

The program was developed by the St. John Health system, a southeast Michigan health care provider, as part of their parish nursing program. It was designed as a 12-week virtual trip to the Holy Land that starts in January and ends at Easter. Participants log miles weekly to bring the parish closer to Jerusalem, and to achieving its goal of physical and spiritual well being.

Long time parishioner and registered nurse Susan Infeld heard about "Walk to Jerusalem" last year when she took a parish nursing course at Shenandoah University. She saw the potential for her parish and brought the concept to Father Tom Ferguson, pastor, hoping he would see a benefit for his flock. He did and Infeld purchased the rights to copy the various materials from the St. John Health CD and adopted it to fit the parish.

She started the parish on its journey in early February with plans to arrive at Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. More than 100 teams, many sporting whimsical names like "The Praying Mantises'" and "Heaven Eleven" signed a "Walk to Jerusalem" scroll as a testament to their commitment to the journey.

Interested parishioners logon to the parish Web site - stthomasabecketparish.org - to register, and then come back weekly to enter their mileage. Participants need to perform 20 minutes of exercise to generate a mile of progress. These 20 minutes of exercise can be anything from walking, running and aerobics to a pickup basketball game or even carrying golf clubs in a round of golf. It just has to be something that raises the heartbeat - and the spirit.

For those not able to participate because of a physical limitation there are ways to earn that all important mile by performing a good deed or praying the rosary. Each good deed or rosary puts the parish a mile closer to the Holy City. All the individual mileage adds up to push the parish toward Jerusalem and parishioners can chart their progress by checking out a world map on the church Web site or in the church lobby.

To keep up interest in the program Infeld set up a table in the lobby that displays various artifacts of the locale the parish is traveling through. In the first week of the journey, the table displayed mostly health and fitness related items, but as the pilgrimage moved on the display became more in tune with the surroundings. With the parish moving into the Middle East, the table now contains books on the region, Christian religious texts as well as Jewish and Muslim prayer cloths and other ethnic artifacts.

The weekly parish bulletin has a "Walk to Jerusalem" section that posts fictional letters to the mysterious "Miriam," which is the pseudonym for Susan Infeld, the writer and recipient of the notes. In the March 2 bulletin, there was a message from "Rick" who welcomed the parish pilgrims to his home in Morocco. Rick goes on to describe the various foods the parishioners enjoy and signs off with Humphrey Bogart's line from Casablanca, "Here's looking at you kid."

The March 9 letter was more ominous, citing growing tension and violence in the Middle East and comparing that to Christ's suffering as His mission on earth approached fruition.

Although Infeld spent many hours setting up and managing the program she said that much of the credit for its success lies with Father Ferguson.

"The success of any program is tied to the support and enthusiasm of the pastor," she said. "Father Tom has been extraordinarily generous in both."

As of March 9, the parish had logged 4,910 miles, leaving them 1,015 miles to go until their journey's end. Infeld was confident of success and said she believed that Father Ferguson, "Rick," "Miriam" and the entire parish will process triumphantly into the City of God on Palm Sunday.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2008