[Episcopal News Service] Hundreds of bishops this Advent have embarked on a walking pilgrimage through the Holy Land, without ever having to set foot outside their neighborhoods. There is an app for this, developed by St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Columbia, South Carolina.
The church’s smartphone app, launched on November 29, allows users to chart a 97-mile virtual path through and around Jerusalem that follows the story of Luke’s Gospel. As with a fitness tracker, your mileage is recorded whenever you walk – from anywhere in the world – and the app map shows equivalent distances covered in the Holy Land, divided into six segments.
It may not be a substitute for a real pilgrimage to the Holy Land, like the one that St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields clergy leaders hoped to plan with their congregation. But, with the coronavirus pandemic restricting international travel, this digital alternative was widely adopted by telephone pilgrims interested in learning about the land where Jesus walked.
“It is difficult to know the stories, to be able to really delve into the stories of the Gospel, without seeing the places where they happened,” said Rev. Susan Prinz, associate dean, to the Episcopal News Service.
Prinz got the idea for the app in October with Rev. Caitlyn Darnell, a deacon who serves as director of formation and mission for the Church. To build it, they hired Rev. Greg Johnston, dean of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Boston, Massachusetts, who had previous experience in developing faith-based applications.
For much of the fall, Prinz and Darnell worked with Rev. Mitch Smith, Dean of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, to create videos and other content that Johnston could use to develop the app. They also enlisted Episcopal and Anglican colleagues from around the world to contribute, including Coadjutor Jerusalem Bishop Hosam Naoum, who recorded a welcome video.
Prinz and Naoum met while studying together at Virginia Theological Seminary, and Prinz had traveled to Israel twice, in 2012 and 2016. These trips “made me see Jesus in a deeper way and experience his life in a way unlike anything I I have done. experienced before, ”said Prinz. She approached the app with these experiences in mind.
Darnell did not go to Israel, but in 2019, she joined the group organized by the United Grace Offering of the Episcopal Church that walked part of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, in Spain. Like the Way, the virtual pilgrimage to the Holy Land can be completed at the pace of the pilgrim’s choice. “You can start the pilgrimage at any time and walk until you are finished,” Darnell told ENS.
Participation has expanded far beyond St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields. Through word of mouth and some online promotion, around 500 people signed up in advance and received printed church pilgrimage guides in the mail. Some congregations in the United States have joined St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields to use the app as an Advent activity, and Darnell said the virtual pilgrimage has attracted pilgrims from places as far away as the Philippines.
The app tracks mileage using health trackers on users’ phones. Along the way, virtual pilgrims can learn about sacred sites and landmarks, “unlocking” the content produced and curated by the St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields team. They also know the various characters in the Gospel story.
Stage 1, for example, involves 14 kilometers of walking, to cover the equivalent distance from Ain Kareem to Belém. After the first mile, hikers can read Prinz’s post about Isabel and Zacarias. Two more miles unlocks a Darnell video about the Annunciation. The sacred sites and landmarks highlighted by the app reflect those who attracted a million Christian pilgrims to Israel in 2019. But, like true pilgrims from the Holy Land, the app’s virtual pilgrims are more than tourists.
“The general focus of the pilgrimage is very spiritual,” said Darnell. “Immerse yourself in the story of Christ. Put yourself in the story. Imagine where you are in the story. How does this relate to you? How will you grow spiritually? Who will you be on the other side of this? “
Darnell added that this pilgrimage can be carried out even by people who cannot or choose not to walk miles. They have the option of advancing to destinations by completing devotional tasks to earn points, like praying the Daily Office, doing a charity act or meditating in silence for 15 minutes.
This Advent app ends with the Transfiguration of Jesus, believed to have occurred on Mount Tabor. Creating and ordering more than 50 pieces of content for this app has kept church leaders busy for about a month and a half, and they are already considering options for a second virtual pilgrimage for Lent, possibly following the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, the Jesus’ final path to the crucifixion. The app can also be used to host other types of pilgrimages, such as a tour of local civil rights movement landmarks.
St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields welcomed the widespread use of the app for anyone interested in joining the Congregation’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and other congregations are invited to build their own virtual pilgrimages using the app, if they decide they have the vision, ambition and staff needed to try.
“From the beginning, we said that we are offering this to the whole church. We absolutely want everyone to be a part of this with us, ”said Darnell. “We are all trying to make the pandemic ministry work.”
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at [email protected].