Shivering as cold rain formed puddles inside her work boots and soaked her long blond hair and T-shirt, Hilary Bok, a philosophy major at Princeton, pushed her hands deeper into her pockets and tried to keep up with her four friends.
She had been hassled by a drunk on 14th Street NW, she had sorted and folded used clothes and she had watched as police threw an old woman into a paddy wagon -- all part of a three-day ecumenical student pilgrimage here last week, based on the theme "suffering and hope."
More than 300 students, from as far away as Texas, suffered more than organizers of the pilgrimage had planned as they walked in the rain all day last Friday, visiting churches and agencies such as Bread for the City, the Hispanic Center and the D.C. jail.
Students arrived at dozens of Washington-area churches last Thursday night and spent the night with church members' families.Some students said they had been preparing for the pilgrimage for months with their school chaplains. Others said they had found out about the pilgrimage only last week.
"The reason this [pilgrimage] is important to me is that Princeton is very corporate, and it's important to realize there's more out there," said Bok, 21. "Princeton is so much different from this. It looks like it's made out of Lego blocks."
Matt Evans, 19, said he had "an inkling" of what urban suffering was about but joined the pilgrimage to see it first-hand. Evans spent the morning at the Blair Shelter for homeless men in Northeast Washington, where he was shocked to learn that some of the city's homeless spent their winters on steam grates.
"We have heat grates at school and sometimes in the winter five or six of us will stand on them together to get warm . . . but I can't imagine sleeping on one every night," Evans told his companions as they walked towards Embassy Row.
"The most ironic thing about Washington is that people all over the world think of it as a rich, cultural center, yet it has so many problems," said the Princeton University student. "To see suffering and (have) people with the power to solve (the problems) within sight of each other is an abhorrence."
On Friday night, the weary pilgrims dried off and ate at Washington Cathedral, which organized the weekend along with brothers from the Taize ecumenical community in France. Later, several hundred Washington-area residents joined the students at the candle-lit cathedral for what many said was the most moving worship service they had ever attended.
Students dressed in sneakers, boots and work clothes stacked their back pacts and sleeping rolls at the cathedral's entrances and crowded into the front of the church spilling onto the floor around Brother Roger Shutz, the 65-year-old founder of the Taize community, which each year attracks over 30,000 visitors for prayer and meditation.
Brother Roger, white-haired and white-robed, asked the crowd in a whispery voice to reconcile their religious, racial, and national differences, without wasting "your time and energy trying to find out who is wrong and who was right."
Other brothers from Taize led the gathering in chants in Latin, English, Spanish and French.
Many students stayed after midnight to chant and pray before moving to other buildings on the cathedral grounds where they slept on floors until the final service on Saturday morning.
Brother Roger founded the Taize community in 1940 as a shelter for those fleeing Nazi persecution, later helping them to escape. Today, the community has 85 Protestant and Catholic brothers working in ghettos of several countries, including the United States. Brother Roger is adamant that brothers earn their own living, so the community can survive without the "trouble caused by" public donations.
During this, his second trip to the United States, Brother Roger attracted 5,000 to a similar service at St. Patrick's Cathedral following a student pilgrimage in New York City earlier last week.
Pope Paul VI once asked Brother Roger "what is the key to the heart of the young," the brother said through an interpreter. "I told him we don't have a key and we never will."
"Problems of youth today are much different from what we heard 10 years ago." Brother Roger said. "We're struck by how serious they are.They are worried about the future -- where will I be 10 years from now."
As Matt Evans left the final gathering Saturday afternoon, he wandered through the cathedral and sat with his hands in his pockets. "I feel like a new creature. This whole pilgrimage has given me a chance to reflect on my place and responsibility to the world."
"Brother Roger is an amazing man," he said. "When I met him in the receiving line, we didn't talk, he just held my hands and looked right into my eyes and I felt a very real presence of Christ. It was very moving. Afterwards I had to go outside and think about it for awhile and I prayed and now I feel really changed."
Brother Roger plans to return to the United States next year for another, larger student pilgrimage in New York City and possibly Philadelphia.