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Franciscan Friars Trudge 300 Miles in Va. and Find Kindred Souls Along the Way

On June 16, four young Franciscan friars and their two mentors set out from Roanoke, Va., for a 300-mile walking pilgrimage to Washington that ends Wednesday.

"It seemed like such a good idea at the time," said Lopez, 30.

The six spread out on the trampoline as if they were spokes on a wheel. But soon they realized gravity was against them, pulling everyone toward the center. Some tried to sleep clutching the side railing. When one person rolled over, the rest bobbed uncontrollably like buoys. No one got much sleep, but the firefighters did send them off the next morning with corned beef sandwiches.

Since then, they have slept on picnic tables outside Lynchburg, basement floors in Charlottesville, even on office tables at a food pantry.

One night they were hosted by a man with tattoos on his arms, an unkempt ponytail and all of his front teeth missing. He had pulled up in his beat-up Jeep and offered to let the friars stay with him in an old one-room schoolhouse in Nelson County.

"He looked like he had just gotten out of prison," said Hennings, but the man turned out to be a Native American healer. The friars stayed up all night talking to him. He told them Native stories and played his double flute. They chanted Latin hymns in return and told him stories from the Gospel.

Such moments of grace became a daily occurrence for the friars. Sure, some passersby gave them the finger. One guy even leaned out the window to add a sprinkling of Nietzsche ("God is dead!") to his vulgarities. But most encounters were meaningful, even profound.

Just outside Harrisonburg, a woman in her 40s with a young daughter pulled over in her old Dodge sedan to talk to 25-year-old friar Richard Goodin.

She'd recently caught her husband cheating on her. He had kicked her and her daughter out of their house, she told Goodin. Now, like the friars, they were wandering through the wilderness, unsure of their next meal or their next move.

As they talked, the woman's daughter rummaged through the car and gave the friars a soda. Then she found a chocolate bar and offered that. As the conversation began winding down, the daughter said there was nothing more in the car. The woman reached for her purse and told Goodin, "I want to give you what we have left."

She pressed $3.52 into his hand, which he accepted reluctantly.

"I realized she wasn't giving this to us or to me," Goodin said. "I think she heard us talk about trusting in God and she wanted to try to trust in the same way. She was giving that money to God."

He and the other friars have thought about the woman a lot. Last week, they thought about her as they walked along Lee Highway in Fairfax, where Mary Williams and her three kids pulled over in their minivan and offered to take the brothers to a Chik-fil-A.

"It was the oddest experience sitting there at Chik-fil-A with everyone staring at us," said Williams, 45. "The high point was when the guy dressed up like a cow came out and gave us all high fives. He was in costume. They were in robes. A lot of people were wondering what was going on."

People had much the same reaction Tuesday as the friars crossed the Memorial Bridge and wandered past the Lincoln Memorial. In an instant, tourists went from posing in front of Lincoln's statue to posing with the Franciscans.

Their plan was to spend one last night wherever God provided and then arrive this morning at the monastery near Catholic University. They hope to spend the day there, telling the story of their journey and the goodness they encountered to anyone who wanted to listen.

Their message will be simple: "Anything can happen when you live in the moment, one step at a time," said Mark Soehner, 51, one of the mentors to the young friars. "But to find that out, you have to be willing to take that one step."


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