By Kara Witherow, Editor
Just as Mary and Joseph took a journey more than 2,000 years ago, last month members of Trinity United Methodist Church in Warner Robins took their own Advent journey.
While Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was fraught with discomforts and dangers, Trinity UMC’s modern-day journey was one of faith.
From Nov. 27 through Christmas Eve, more than 100 members of Trinity UMC embarked on their own “Journey to Bethlehem.” While walking 2.5 miles a day – which added up to the 70-mile trek Mary and Joseph made – participants prayed for their neighbors, community, schools and local businesses.
In addition to daily prayer walks, Trinity UMC offered “The Journey – Walking the Road to Bethlehem,” a church-wide Advent study. For four weeks, adults, youth and children met in small groups and studied the birth of Jesus Christ.
“We wanted to try to emphasize a different meaning of Christmas rather than all of the shopping and busyness that goes on,” said Angela Gilbert, Trinity UMC’s children’s and media technology director. “We found that if we take time out of our day to walk and be in prayer, it’s centering.”
The idea for Journey to Bethlehem came as a way to remember the birth of Jesus. Another local church no longer hosted their much-loved “Walk through Bethlehem” live nativity, and Trinity UMC members wanted to do something a little different while still helping people actively remember the true meaning of the season.
“It started with their (Mary and Joseph’s) journey,” said church member Angie Sams, who helped plan and organize the event. “As we walked we wanted to center our mind on Jesus and pray for people we passed.”
A map of Warner Robins was placed in the church so people could highlight areas they had walked and prayed for. A week into the initiative the map needed to be enlarged. About one-third of the town was covered in prayer, Gilbert said.
Some walked outside and prayed for people they passed. Others walked on treadmills and prayed for fellow gym goers. Some who couldn’t physically walk the 2.5-mile distance drove around town praying for the businesses and schools they passed.
“There’s something about being outside and being in nature that seems to make it even easier to connect to God,” said Gilbert, who often walked and prayed with her five sons. “But wherever you’re at you can pray, and that’s what we wanted everyone to see. Prayer does make a difference and we do believe that it’s going to transform our community.”
Facebook posts let friends and family in other parts of the country know about the church’s Journey to Bethlehem, and soon people from as far away as South Carolina and North Carolina were participating.
Not just a small group study or exercise campaign, Trinity UMC’s Journey to Bethlehem was a three-prong effort to help participants focus on prayer and the true meaning of the Advent season.
“The prayer experiences, especially, helped us focus on Christ rather than all the other things that go on – parties, buying gifts, family activities, and more – and to just focus on Christ,” said Anna Hill, who participated in the Journey to Bethlehem with her husband Toby. “It was a really nice, quiet, meditative time. The closer Christmas got, the more we were ready for it. The whole point of Advent is that the closer you get to Christmas you get more and more ready for the coming of Christ.”
On Dec. 18, the final day of their “Journey” small-group Bible study, participants gathered to walk one mile together and to take part in a creative prayer experience for the entire family.
Christmas carols were sung, dinner was served, hot chocolate and cookies were enjoyed, and everyone participated in age-appropriate prayer experiences.
A prayer labyrinth, borrowed from Macon’s Forest Hills United Methodist Church, and prayer stations, dubbed Journey of the Wisemen, helped participants reflect on what they had learned on their journey and what they would take with them into the new year.
“This was one of the most meaningful Advents for me,” said Margaret Mathews, who taught an Advent Sunday school class and helped plan the prayer service. “This Journey to Bethlehem helped make it about all of Advent and not just Christmas. I had to think every day and get out and do something, and that was really impactful for me. It invaded my prayer life. This is something to do not just during Advent.”
Making prayer and a focus on Christ a daily experience and lifestyle, not something that happens occasionally or just at Advent and Easter, was the goal, Gilbert said.
“People have already asked if we’re going to do this for Lent,” she said. “But we don’t have to stop – just keep doing it! I hope that we’re going to see people make this a part of their lifestyle.”