St. Martin-in-the-Fields - Sunday December 23

st martin-in-the-fields
the pilgrimage (2/3)

Continuing today is a three-part documentary profiling the famous church that overlooks London’s Trafalgar Square. This second programme joins pilgrims on a 72-mile journey from St Martin’s to Canterbury cathedral –an annual event which raises funds for the church’s work with the homeless.

St Martin’s has taken the homeless under its wing for over 80 years. The work began during World War II, when Reverend Dick Sheppard opened the church’s doors to troops stranded in London on their way back from the Front. From these basic beginnings, the work evolved into the Connection –the church’s charity and day centre for the homeless. But safeguarding Sheppard’s legacy of social care and keeping the Connection going does not come cheap. For the past 16 years, St Martin’s has been raising funds by organising an annual, sponsored pilgrimage to Canterbury cathedral, ending at the site of Sheppard’s grave in the cathedral’s cloisters.

Colin, a pilgrim who is almost totally blind, is walking to Canterbury for the second time. Alongside him is Eugene, who has been disabled since birth and is part of St Martin’s unusually large Chinese Christian community. Many of the pilgrims have a direct link with the Connection, including Kevin, one of its clients. He has been on and off the streets since he was 11. “I’m the wrong side of 40 for sleeping out nowadays,” he says, but smiles and adds “I don’t look too bad for it – I’ve still got my own teeth!” In contrast, Simon, a trustee on the Connection board, has come along to get an insight into what the unit does. And Sam, 27, is walking for the first time. A chronic anorexic with a long-term drug problem, Sam first came into contact with St Martin’s seven years ago: “They [the Connection] have literally had to pick me up off the floor before.”

Mid-way through the second day, after a night spent sleeping on a church hall floor, the pilgrims are faced with the toughest leg of the journey: the beginning of the North Downs. Coming up, however, is one of Kevin’s favourite buildings: the Carmelite Priory, which has offered refuge to weary pilgrims on the way to Canterbury for the past 700 years. The next day, they set off on an eight-mile trek to Charing, near Ashford. Pilgrimage veteran Gilly, who is on her 11th year, is part of the fast walker group in the front. “Every year it seems to become less about walking and more about the pilgrimage,” she explains. She is accompanied by her dog, who, on his third pilgrimage, is a relative novice.

Bringing up the rear is Colin and Eugene’s group. The men are just two of the pilgrims who have found themselves making new friends on the journey, a happy and regular consequence of the pilgrimage. “Deep friendships are made,” says St Martin’s vicar Nick. “I don’t think you’re at all aware of people’s social circumstances. And I think that’s one of the gifts of the whole thing, really.” Towards the end of the walk, friends and family join the trek, swelling the numbers from 60 to around 100.

As the walkers close in on Canterbury, there is a special moment when the cathedral first comes into view –and then the pilgrims finally arrive at their destination, tired but happy. Asked if he feels proud to have completed the pilgrimage, Colin replies cheerfully: “Proud? Exultant!” Over the course of their journey, a community has been formed of a disparate group of people who have become friends and even had their lives changed. One of the most affected has been Sam, who was profoundly moved by the experience of being accepted, inspiring her to return to rehab soon afterwards. Six months later, she describes how her life has changed from being a “real mess” into something filled with hope: “I’ve got a life today.”

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