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The long walk to Rome

Andrew and Sarah Hinlicky Wilson take a break from their 70-day pilgrimage to look out over the Valley of Chiavenna in Northern Italy as they walk Martin Luther’s 1510 route to Rome. Photos provided by Andrew Wilson

An historic pilgrimage, completed at the end of October, traced the steps of Martin Luther from Erfurt, Germany, to Rome, and marked the 500th anniversary of Luther’s trek. The couple making the pilgrimage, Andrew and Sarah Wilson, provided a firsthand account of their experience at Augsburg College’s Founders Lecture in Minneapolis November 10 and 11, less than two weeks after completing the trip.

“The Founders Day Reformation Lectures, now in their sixth year, connect Augsburg’s history and heritage to the founding of the Lutheran Church and help us link Luther’s theology to issues we face in living our mission and vision as a college,” explained Dr. Paul Pribbenow, president of Augsburg. “As we move closer to the 500th anniversary celebration of the Reformation in 2017, these lectures help us build a strong Augsburg tradition around the 95 Theses and the issues of the Reformation that inform our vocational education today.”

Andrew Wilson, with a doctorate in church history from Princeton Theological Seminary, is a Fellow at the Foundation for Interreligious and Intercultural Research and Dialogue in Geneva, Switzerland. In his Founders Day Lecture, “Pomegranates, Passes, and Popes: A Kinetic Perspective on Luther’s 1510 Trip to Rome,” he said, “Five hundred years have passed since the Augustinian monk set off from his Erfurt cloister, … and I was surprised by how few really old buildings there still were.”

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is an ELCA pastor with a doctorate in systematic theology from Princeton. She is assistant research professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France. In her lecture, she remembered the watershed World Mission Conference in 1910, when mainline denominations worldwide gathered to discuss world evangelism. In the midst of honest discussions about their mutually devious competition for converts and, therefore, their tendency to avoid fellowship, the modern ecumenical movement was born. “Ecumenism was born out of mission,” she reiterated.

Sarah Wilson is caught mid-stride walking through a German forest.

We also were blessed with generous hospitality along the way. God provided when we were in need.

While the pilgrimage was planned to draw attention to ecumenical movement and strides made by Lutherans and Roman Catholics in the last 50 years, it also had a personal side — a human interest story. Russell Tokheim interviewed the Wilsons by email before their arrival in the U.S.

Metro Lutheran: What was the most rewarding aspect of your pilgrimage?

It was a true privilege to be able to see a good swath of European city- and countryside at a human pace. While signs of human activity are everywhere in Europe, walking makes you realize how undeveloped even densely populated countries like Germany are. Andrew tried with his photographs to capture our own visual interaction with the landscape — human-made and otherwise.

We also were blessed with generous hospitality along the way. God provided when we were in need, and we are thankful with the — sometimes linguistically confused — interactions we were able to have. I fondly remember a beer we shared on a thirsty afternoon with a mute Italian. He needed some company, we needed some refreshment. There were many similar moments.

Describe your most interesting personal encounter of the journey.

In Chiavenna, our first stop in Italy right on the border with Switzerland, we stayed at a bed-and-breakfast operated by a big family there — parents, four kids, and a neighbor who more or less is always with them. We spoke no Italian, but the mom spoke French, the dad spoke German, the kids spoke English, and the neighbor spoke Spanish (and we can basically operate in those other languages), so we had lively conversations of serious linguistic entanglement. We hit it off so well, and they were so charmed by our project, that they invited us to dinner at their home that night, with the local specialties of gnocchetti di Chiavenna (small gnocchi with lots of butter and cheese) and bresaola (sort of like a beef version of prosciutto).

Andrew Wilson walks with the sun at his back.

It was a true privilege to be able to see a good swath of European city- and countryside at a human pace.

They are very pious Catholics but know quite a lot about Martin Luther and really love him. Some local Catholic priest or scholar had even given a three-hour workshop on Luther in recent years that they had attended and had been very moved by. They were absolutely thrilled to learn that Luther had gone through Chiavenna.

What was the most difficult day you experienced?

That is easy. It was day three, so luckily we got it out of the way early on.

We had originally planned to follow the Santiago de Compostela trail south from Erfurt to Coburg, but only a week before we left we found out that there was definite evidence that Luther went through different cities on his way to Coburg, and we thought it would be better to follow his course whenever possible, even though not every step of our journey followed his path (for instance between Piacenza and Siena in Italy, where walking routes simply don’t exist today). Unfortunately, we underestimated the distance between two daily destinations in this new route. When we came into one town around 5 p.m. to get a bite to eat, we saw signs indicating it was yet another 17 kilometers to our destination of Eisfeld! On top of that, the food we got was absolutely foul. (Three out of the four of us where rather ill the next morning.)

So the day’s total was 39 kilometers, with us arriving at 10 p.m., which meant two hours in the dark on a highway with a narrow shoulder. It was both terrifying and exhausting!

What does Zeke (the Wilson’s son) think of all this?

We just asked him and he said he thought it was cool and was proud of us for following Martin Luther’s steps. However, we’d say he was pretty tired of the camper van by the time it was all over, and he missed being around other kids. For him the best part probably was having his grandparents all to himself for more than two months.

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson and Andrew Wilson retraced Martin Luther’s 1510 trip from Erfurt to Rome, arriving on Reformation Day. They recently spoke at Augsburg College’s Founders Day Lectures.

Is ecumenism advanced by your pilgrimage?

We have no idea how to measure the “advance” of ecumenism. Usually these things are recognized many, many years after the fact. We decided from the beginning that if even just one person was moved by our journey to greater faith in Christ and hope for the unity of his Body, that would be enough; God’s economy doesn’t work like ours. Our calling is not to be successful but to be faithful.

How many pairs of shoes did you go through?

Andrew wore exactly one pair of shoes the whole way — Crocs! We had countless people stop us on our way, stare in disbelief at his feet, and tell us how such a thing was not possible. Most people seem to believe the only way to survive a long walk is in sturdy waterproof hiking boots.

Sarah wore sneaker-sandals most of the way; about four-fifths of the way through the journey the support gave out so she switched to a second pair waiting in reserve.

She also made the mistake of switching to her running shoes for the 12 days we were headed through the Alps — they were good for running but not all-day walking and almost immediately gave her two enormous blisters on her toes. We ended up just slicing out part of the shoe and after that it was OK.

EDITOR’S NOTE: While in Luther’s day pamphlets were a major way of disseminating information, the Wilsons posted daily blogs along their way. For those interested in knowing more about the pilgrimage, the Web site is http://www.hereiwalk.org.

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