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“Stretch out your hand over the sea.” Exod. 14:26

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Susan Stack
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2004 Community Transformation Award Recipient

The Pilgrimage (Church of the Pilgrims, Washington, D.C.)

Presented by the PHEWA’s Urban Network of Congregational Leadership (UNCL)

In February 2004, a group of eleven senior high school students and three adult advisors arrived at The Pilgrimage, a youth hostel and service-learning seminar center for youth and college groups. In reflecting on her experiences, one of the students wrote:

“Two experiences . . . stood out in my mind as being very powerful and eye opening. The first was the chance to share conversation and a meal at The Pilgrimage with a few individuals who were living on the streets for various reasons, and, through misfortunes and mistakes that were at times no fault of their own, had met with poverty and homelessness. Not only did this visit make it clear that homelessness is a much greater problem in America today than I had thought, but it also shattered a stereotype that has existed for me for the greater part of my life. . . . With those who are homeless, it is all too easy to make unfair judgments about drug use, laziness, crime, or other negative afflictions or characteristics. These individuals allowed me to see past those stereotypes and acknowledge that almost anyone could at some point find themselves in a similar situation, without having been involved in any such illicit activities. Making a human connection was, to me, the most important part of the visit. Personally, I have never looked at a person who is homeless in the same way after my first interaction with these people I met last year. It was a very touching and unforgettable experience.”

Operated for more than thirty years as an outreach ministry of Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, DC, The Pilgrimage is a wonderful example of developing a ministry that connects congregations with the needs and opportunities within the greater community. Every year, about seventy groups (averaging about 20 persons per group) come to The Pilgrimage to experience hands-on service projects centered on issues of urban poverty and homelessness in our nation’s capital. One of The Pilgrimage’s distinctive goals is not only to connect youth to the gritty realities of urban poverty, but also to take time to educate and reflect through educational workshops, speaker panels, and writing workshops led by David Harris, a homeless poet and “Artist-in-Residence” of The Pilgrimage. Building on the action/reflection model of learning, the staff encourages program participants to take their experiences back home to their own communities. As one volunteer has said, “The Pilgrimage is not just a mission trip, it is the beginning of a lifetime of service.”

From the beginning, The Pilgrimage has focused its ministry on groups rather than on individuals. The emphasis always is on program assistance and service-learning rather than merely on providing an inexpensive place to stay for youthful travelers to Washington, DC. While early programs focused on public policy, in recent years students have become more involved in community outreach initiatives.

Persons who journey to The Pilgrimage can select from a variety of thematically focused programs, including: Church in the City, Faith and Public Policy, World Religions, HIV/AIDS, Community Issues and the Environment, and Housing. For example, the Church in the City program focuses on issues surrounding hunger and homelessness, as well as ways in which people of faith have responded to these critical issues. They also have the opportunity to hear first-hand the stories of individuals who are homeless and hungry through the Faces of Poverty Panel of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Through the thousands of youth who have journeyed to The Pilgrimage, and through the personal experiences they have taken home to hundreds of communities around the country, Church of the Pilgrims is making an impact, not just on its own members and neighborhood, but on people living far beyond Washington, DC. Visitors who participate in the programs at The Pilgrimage learn first-hand that

“God’s creation is in need of justice and liberation. Justice must be experienced; justice must be lived out by a way of life. The Pilgrimage is a place where one exchanges gifts, stories, lives, and experiences with those of us who are hungry and oppressed. The Pilgrimage is also a place where one can learn about other major religions, or how to shape public policy.” (from “A Pilgrimage Overview,” http://www.thepilgrimage.org).

Centrally located in the business and residential district of Dupont Circle, in the heart of Washington, DC, The Pilgrimage offers simple, safe accommodations for groups of up to 40 persons. It features three dormitory-style bedrooms with bunk beds, a small commons area and dining space with tables, couches, and TV/VCR. It has a fully functional kitchen – everything but the food! Groups must provide their own food, towels, bedding, and transportation. They typically stay at The Pilgrimage for four days to a week, although weekend experiences also are available. The cost of the experience is $25/night per person.

Youth groups affiliated with churches and colleges now comprise the bulk of The Pilgrimage’s visitors, but over the years a wide variety of groups have come to stay and work at this safe place, including high school students from the Ukraine, youths (both Protestant and Roman Catholic) from Ireland, and members of a Seattle-based church for women who are homeless.

The Pilgrimage operates as an outreach ministry of Church of the Pilgrims, a More Light Presbyterian Church in the National Capital Presbytery. For more information about The Pilgrimage, visit their website or call 202-387-6615 to speak with the Director (Rev. Ashley Goff) or the Program Manager (Rosanne Steller in 2004; Matt Boote in 2009). For more information about the ministries of Church of the Pilgrims, go to their website or call 202-387-6612 to speak with the Pastor, Jeff Krehbiel, who offered these words about this ministry in a recent phone conversation,

The Pilgrimage remains one of our most vital ministries, connecting us to youth and young adults at a formative stage of their lives, and with the day-to-day realities of the poor and those who are homeless. Watching their faith grow inspires us in the ministry we do. We are not a large congregation, but through The Pilgrimage we have an impact on hundreds of kids each year. We take the ministry very seriously. At The Pilgrimage, they deepen their understanding of Christian discipleship. When they take that learning home, who knows what might happen. They are the ones who just might change the world.”

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