Joining the Pilgrimage to Paris

I have cared about climate change ever since I first fell in love. I fell in love with a child in Madagascar and suddenly climate change took on a personal dimension. He, like every one of us, will feel the consequences of climate change. I wanted to make the world one in which he could flourish. For me that was about climate justice.

Pilgrims are greeted by school children in London
Pilgrims outside a school in London. Credit: Maud Grainger

Even when we have a connection to the issue and care about it, changes can be hard. I have worked for Birmingham Friends of the Earth, worked across faiths on environmental issues, sat in lecture halls, attended services, stood in the cold asking people to sign postcards to their MPs, watched documentaries, and marched. I have felt in solidarity with others but in none of these did I feel personally pushed.

When I attended the mass lobby of parliament on climate change in June, I found a flyer on the chair for the #pilgrimage2paris. I looked at it and thought 'No, I can't do that. Sometimes I struggle to even walk around the house. I am not fit, I am overweight – this is a crazy idea!' And yet the thought of pilgrimage stayed …

As Quakers we are asked to do what love requires of us. Love required me to walk. Last week I set out with forty four other pilgrims from the church of St Martin in the Field in London.

Preparing for pilgrimage

To prepare I went on short walks in my lunch breaks and longer walks in the evenings and weekends. I went swimming and on one very silly occasion even attempted a jog.

Sitting in Meeting for Worship I tested the idea. I thought about what the climate talks in Paris might mean, and sat with the disappointment I had felt as a campaigner when you feel all your efforts go to nothing.


I set off from Birmingham before 6am to catch a train to London. The service in St Martin the Field in London was, I hear, very moving. I have to admit my mind was elsewhere, mainly on my feet. Had I prepared enough? How was I going to carry the hoodie they have given us? Has my day pack got all I need in it? Or am I carrying too much?

I found the first mile quite hard. We had to stop and start a lot. People were running ahead to take photos and it was through very busy central London. Luckily for me, a friend was there who walked alongside me for the first mile. I chatted to him about work and it made it feel a lot more normal.

My highlights from day one were some teenagers yelling at us somewhere near Sutton – 'what you really walking to Paris?' To which some replied very simply 'Yes!', and we walked on. I wonder what they might remember from that encounter in years to come.

My second highlight was a reminder of how quickly you can connect with others when you are doing something together. I didn't know anyone's names and yet we were in it together and we looked out for each other.

I knew something was wrong toward the last hour and a half of walking. Looking back, I ought to have stopped. Taking off my sock I saw that my foot was in a bad way, and it was the only the following morning I could see it was a blister that had ripped. I could no longer put my shoe on (and five days later I am still struggling to), so withdrawing was the right thing to do.

Withdrawing was one of the most difficult things. I tried to hold the tears back and hide my disappointment, but the emotions were all too present. It's an odd day when I am sad about missing out on walking 20 miles in the rain, but I felt I had started something. Despite saying I would walk as long as I could and take it day by day, I hadn't anticipated it would stop so suddenly.

We heard that morning about the attacks in Paris. Suddenly the pilgrimage took on a new level of poignancy. It was no longer just our final destination, everything had changed. There is only so much one can say. We were in shock, people put their heads down and walked. We were informed that decisions about the future of the pilgrimage would be made in a few days.

I was offered a place in the support vehicle that second day as I came to terms with my early exit from the pilgrimage. We would drive a mile or so ahead and wait and check in with the pilgrims as they made their way. We smiled and cheered them on and met up with them on breaks.

That evening we heard a talk by CAFOD on the Pope's Encyclical 'Laudato Si'. I had been looking forward to this and it didn't disappoint. We were talked through the chapters and the speaker related it to our experience of being on pilgrimage. We were asked a number of helpful reflection questions.

She later spoke about transformation, that when we return, some things will be transformed, but quite a lot will stay the same.

I feel that now, I feel transformed. It was a short but incredibly powerful experience and one that will spiritually sustain me for some time. But life is the same, our work goes on.

We can't look at our work in a segregated fashion. Climate change, war, refugees and economic systems are all part of one big jigsaw and it will take all of us to see a world transformed.

As the work goes on, what does love require of you?

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