Background
The NHS Prayer Pilgrimage was born from a picture given to me (Becky Richards, the new curate of St John the Baptist, Littleworth, Stafford) in January 2015. The church was holding a day of prayer for our parish, which coincided with the final day of a six-month protest camp on the hospital field against the removal of key services from the much-maligned Stafford Hospital. Amongst the tents, stood a prayer-cross which we had put there during an outdoor service with the campers in Summer 2014. It was tied with blue ribbons on which we had written prayers for the hospital and its staff. In the picture, a group of Christians were to carry the prayer cross from Stafford to London and pray for the NHS. Asking God to confirm this picture, I immediately received the scripture, Micah 6:8
“He has told you, oh man, what is good and what does the Lord require of you, but to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”

When I eventually found courage to share this picture with my training incumbent and another prayerful person in our church family, she had received this same scripture many years earlier when climbing on a coach from Stafford to London with her children for a music festival at the Albert Hall. The Prayer Cross was returned to our church and has remained in our Lady Chapel; a constant reminder to pray for the hospital during the difficult last years of renaming and restructuring. The picture re-emerged for me, with a new sense of urgency, last August when all clergy received invitations to participate in the ecumenical prayer initiative ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ between Ascension and Pentecost. I was struck by the fact that everywhere Jesus preached the Kingdom, he healed the sick and this is primarily the work of the NHS in our country, which offers treatment to all at no cost, regardless of social status, income level or ethnicity. After testing the proposal with the local NHS Trust, our Bishop and the Ministers of our town who meet to pray together monthly, the vision was presented openly at the end of January 2017 in the week of prayer for Christian Unity. With just 4 months to plan and prepare everything it seemed an impossibly-big project, but we all felt that we must therefore trust more fully in the God for whom all things are possible.

From Vision to Reality
Although St Johns, Littleworth, was the driving force of the project, everything was planned ecumenically and undergirded with prayer from the outset. It is my fervent belief that God does not mind us worshipping him in different ways, but he longs for his people to pray and witness together, for then the World may ‘see and believe’ (John 17: 20-21). Monthly open meetings enabled us to gather together teams of people to work on prayer support, worship booklets, walk route and logistics, hospital liaison, website/ social media and the production of prayer booklets as gifts for all NHS staff we could give them to. We were supported by a grant from BCCE/CLASP (Black Country Churches Engaged/Churches Linked Across Staffordshire and the Potteries) and numerous donations from individuals. A concert of worship music in our home church, ten days before the Walk, raised a very biblical £777.77 which covered half the cost of the first print run of 10,000 prayer booklets.

By mid-May we had a core group of 5 pilgrims committed to walk all or most of the route to London and others signing-up to walk a day here and there, with more joiners in the middle stretch around Milton Keynes. Becky had visited all the hospitals on our route, planned and prayed with all the chaplains who would later host us for worship. We had permission from all the Trusts, apart from one, when Theresa May announced her surprise General Election and ‘purdah’ was imposed. The ‘famous five’ met to pray, eat together and discuss our hopes and fears for the Walk, together with our invaluable Support Vehicle-driver; also Walk Logistics Organiser; ‘Dave-the-Van’. At our Stafford base, Churches Together in our town organised a rota to lead prayers in County Hospital’s ‘Pilgrim Chapel’ daily at 5.30pm during the pilgrimage; to pray for the pilgrims and the hospital in which they would be worshipping and ministering at that time. They also organised a coach to London for the final services in St Mary’s hospital, Paddington and St Thomas’s hospital, Westminster and join us for that last leg of the walk across the Royal Parks between the two.

The Pilgrimage
On the Eve of our Departure we held a service in the Pilgrim Chapel of Stafford’s County Hospital which has a stained-glass window of a single scallop shell, traditionally carried by all pilgrims to scoop water from wells and springs along their route. Chaplain Leo reminded the pilgrims that we were “putting feet to others’ prayers” and reminded the prayers that “when human beings work – human beings work, but when human beings pray – GOD works!” The following morning, Ascension Day, the Bishop of Stafford placed scallop shells on blue ribbons round the neck of each pilgrim with the words ‘I suppose I am scalloping you, rather than scalping you!’ to which one pilgrim replied, ‘I am shell-shocked!’ Such banter was to sustain the pilgrims through the wearier times ahead. The first of 15 new blue ribbons were added to the cross; one for each of the hospitals we visited; with prayer needs written on them by their chaplains.

The cross was always carried with us and this and the scallop shells were to prompt one of two reactions: interest or selective vision. We were to discover just how accomplished most of the adult population are at pretending they haven’t seen something or someone who is odd or religious (or a dangerous combination of the latter). Sunglasses and mobile phones are peculiarly helpful aids to selective vision! As the walk progressed, taking us across beautiful countryside, along quiet canals, through residential suburbs and across busy city centres, it was fascinating to notice who showed interest or engaged us in conversation. For some an exchange of smiles was enough, for others conversation lead to appreciation and support of our venture (even wanting to go on-line to donate) or to requests for prayer. I have lost count of the number of ‘chance encounters’ which found us talking with NHS staff and giving them prayer books, or praying with people who were either recently-bereaved or in the middle of treatment of some kind. One man was on his first walk outside after finishing a course of chemotherapy. Always we took time to talk and pray with them if they wished, which we had not factored-in to our tight schedule of 18-22 miles per day. However, we made up time by shortening our rest stops where possible. Many churches on our route had agreed to open their doors and offer us welcome refreshments and the use of ‘facilities’. We took time to pray with and for them. Each evening we worshipped at another hospital, prayed with and anointed staff and local volunteers. These services were very ecumenical, led by chaplains who were Baptist, Anglican, URC, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal and Methodist. They were very special times when we all felt held in the love of the Trinity. After the service, local Christians had arranged hospitality which usually involved a meal in a local church, sometimes a vicarage, and then going back to our host families who provided hot baths and welcome beds to restore aching limbs. The combination of this Christian care and committed prayer from our church family back in Stafford resulted in amazing restoration.

The final day’s walk took us to the heart of our cosmopolitan capital on a sunny Summer Saturday afternoon. Bishop Pete Broadbent; acting Bishop of London; met us at Little Venice on the canal and walked with us to St Mary’s, Paddington, where we met up with friends from Stafford who had faithfully supported us in prayer. Together we worshipped in the beautiful old chapel in the Mary Stanford wing of the hospital, before a hugely swelled party of pilgrims set out to walk the last three miles across Hyde Park and St James’s to Parliament square. The last 10 minutes over Westminster bridge to St Thomas’s hospital on the Southbank was walked in silent prayer, as Mrs May’s campaign bus drove past. Poignantly our final service was led by Mia Hilborn, Lead Chaplain of the Guys/St Thomas’s Trust, who just hours later would be ministering to victims and relatives of the terrorist attack on London Bridge.

To be a Pilgrim.
‘To be a pilgrim’ is to set out on a transformative journey with God; to have one’s eyes opened by the landscape you traverse and the people with whom you journey and converse. You will leave the pilgrimage a different person from the one who set out. We found ourselves challenged by numerous encounters along our route, with ‘ministering angels’ who offered advice or encouragement at critical moments on the journey. One such angel was Ann (name changed for anonymity) who met us on the last few miles of our 22-mile hike from Rugby to Northampton, a lonely figure outside a locked church, bearing biscuits! She was on her first 24-hour discharge after 6 months’ treatment in a local Psychiatric hospital and had decided to join us. The heavens opened as we reached the town centre and Ann was able to use her local knowledge to guide us into a nearer entrance to the sprawling hospital and through its maze of corridors to the chapel, where she quietly slipped away during the service to catch her bus. Just imagine our delight and disbelief when she joined us, now fully discharged, for the final leg of the pilgrimage in London.

On the first day, as we walked into Walsall along the canal, a group of girls spotted the cross and the its footsore followers and shouted out, “Look… they’re doing ‘the Jesus thing’!” As day followed day, we were to realise the pertinence of this exclamation. God invited us to see the world through his eyes; the people we noticed (and who spoke with us) were the homeless, the immigrants, widows/widowers, the sick and children. This should not surprise us when we read in the bible of a God ‘who watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow,’ (Psalm 146 v.9) and whose son came to seek out and save the lost and voiceless in Society.

As our strange little group of pilgrims made its way through Birmingham City Centre and through crowded Coventry, following the cross, we were skilfully ignored by the majority. I suddenly realised God was helping us feel like those in our Society who are permanently overlooked; the homeless; whose bundles of bedding we observed stashed under canal bridges. I also recalled how Jesus himself made his weary way through the busy streets of a crowded Jerusalem at Passover time, ignored by the majority, but helped by a foreigner to carry his cross to Golgotha.

These are just a few of our reflections; more will doubtless emerge as the weeks pass and it becomes clearer how this pilgrimage has changed and challenged each of us. However, it has certainly lead me to question why Christians spend so much time in their churches wondering how we can get people to come to us? Perhaps God is waiting for us to go out to them…. And do ‘the Jesus thing’? After all, FAITH is a Fantastic Adventure In Trusting Him!

More Information and a blog of the walk can be accessed at: www.nhsprayerwalk.co.uk

Rev.Becky Richards,
Curate of St John the Baptist, Littleworth, Stafford.
Monday 5th May, 2017.

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