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Published October 11, 2013, 10:00 PM

Living Faith: Pilgrimage closes generation gap

It was the third year I’d accompanied a group of eighth-graders on a nine-mile pilgrimage from north to south Fargo.

By: Roxane Salonen, INFORUM

It was the third year I’d accompanied a group of eighth-graders on a nine-mile pilgrimage from north to south Fargo. Their aim was twofold: raise money for charity and be a visible presence of young faith in the community.

Several years ago, a religion teacher at our parochial school started the event to encourage students to do more than just talk the talk.

I volunteered this year, as before, to be group photographer for my daughter’s class. Though this walk generally leaves my atrophied muscles whining due to running to catch up or racing to the front, it always ends up worthwhile.

So late last week, we gathered up north to pray and receive a blessing before setting off – chaperones, teachers and a bubbly brood of teens.

“Dear God,” I prayed, “help me see the moment, the one that will make this more than just a mid-morning stroll.”

The students had come with rain gear and other provisions. Some carried signs prompting passing vehicles to “Honk if you love Jesus.” At the front of the line, the sturdiest took turns hoisting a large, wooden cross speckled with signatures of pilgrims from years past.

Meandering through busy streets, the kids did what they could to elicit responses, seeking beep-beeps, a friendly yell or a wave.

They experienced how it feels to be affirmed in the faith as well as rejected for it, yet through the ups and downs, a buoyancy of eager anticipation pervaded.

As we continued toward the cathedral and on into the thick of downtown, I wondered, “What will the moment be?” I stayed alert, camera ready.

Around First Avenue North, a mother doled out Oreos, giving the hungry travelers a sugar boost for the next leg. I snapped a photo. “That was sweet, but it wasn’t the moment,” I thought. It would come; I just had to be patient.

I then followed a small section of the group into Island Park, where they stood in a circle near the Angel of Hope statue, beautifully offering a prayer petition. “Is this the moment?” I wondered.

And then something distracted me. From the corner of my eye, I saw a squirrel and its mama skittering through the leaf-laden grass, past a rock and up a tree.

Their friskiness had roused my attention to another section of our group to my left, and as I turned and put the camera lens to my eye, the moment happened.

It started with the line of teenagers ahead who otherwise might have been absorbed with cell phones or iPods but now had hands free and hearts open; widely enough to see the commotion stirring nearby.

More movement just beyond them pulled my eyes to the windows of the downtown YMCA, where another line facing ours had formed inside. They stood there pressed against the window, most silver-haired, waving excitedly in our direction.

I knew our presence alone wouldn’t have attracted the attention. Groups of youngsters pass by there regularly. No, something specific had caused the breach in their exercising.

And then I noticed the middle of the line below where the cross was being harbored. This had to be it – this symbol of faith and the young people carrying it seemed the most likely reason for the disruptive dance.

To witness this moment was bliss. As one born into an in-between decade, I’m deeply aware of the generational divide, and yet for a brief span it simply vanished. Rather than two generations so far apart they often speak different languages, I saw them in sync, singing the same song.

“Our torch of faith has not been ignored,” the elders seemed to be saying, to which the young ones replied, thumbs in the air, “Yes, we got this.”

I hadn’t expected this to be the moment and yet it’s the one that came, telling me that faith is alive, in the tried-and-true experiences of the old and the still-fresh dreams of the young.

It will be a memory I’ll carry with me, this hope-filled flash, one sliver in time that closed the generational divide and let in the light.

Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email roxanebsalonen@gmail.com

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