To be able to walk where Jesus walked during these final days of Holy Week would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. One church in the Southeast District is offering the next best thing: an interactive walk through the scenes of Jesus’ last days before the Crucifixion.
On Good Friday, April 14, from 8 am to 8 pm, the Donnellson United Methodist Church will host its Walking the Last Days of Jesus event in its sanctuary.
“I wanted to give the churches that I serve the experience of walking where Jesus would have walked,” said Peggy Ellingson, pastor of Donnellson UMC Embury UMC. “Since I couldn’t take them to the Holy Land, I think this was a way they could experience Holy Week versus a (worship) service.”
The walk is made up of interactive visuals that symbolize different components of Holy Week. At the first station, participants write their hopes and dreams on a palm leaf, symbolizing Jesus entering Jerusalem on what is now Palm Sunday. The second station symbolizes the washing of the disciples’ feet where participants wash their hands. Next is a Communion table. Instead of an open cup and loaf of bread, Ellingson found self-enclosed cups and blessed them for participants beforehand. The next station is set up to look like the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed and wept. The altar is surrounded by a variety of green plants, giving the visitor a chance to sit in quiet and in prayer as Jesus did.
“People can go and sit within the plants and reflect in a quiet space,” said Ellingson.
The last two stations are especially powerful because they symbolize the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. At the Crucifixion, a participant can write their sins or worries on a piece of paper and nail it to the cross. The final station is made to look like the tomb. Ellingson found a piece of material that looks like stone, and she set up the stone table and cloth. A basket is filled with rocks for people take to remind them of the tomb and the rock that was rolled away.
At each station, participants read a Scripture passage describing what is happening. The participants also receive a booklet at the start of the walk with a small prayer for each station. It can take anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours for people to walk the whole journey.
“This is a very self-guided tour so they can take their time going to each station and stay as long as they’d like,” said Ellingson.
Ellingson had been to the Holy Land herself in the past and walked where each of the stations represents. She knew she had to bring the same experience to her congregation so they could feel the Easter spirit.
“I was brain-storming with my ministry assistant Carolyn Pundt, and I shared with her what I hoped to give the churches I serve,” she said. “I had a vision of what I wanted it to look like and what station was supposed to do.”
Ellingson knew she wanted to use the sanctuary and narthex, but was unable to move the pews. She also wanted to give space for people to sit and reflect if they chose. So, with the help of a trustee board member, they build 3x4 foot platforms that would lay over the back of the pews in the sanctuary.
“We didn’t want the aisle blocked, so it was safer,” she said. “We also wanted a place if people needed or wanted to sit down or spend more time at a station, they could sit in the pew right behind it.”
After creating the space for the stations, Ellingson had to bring her vision to life. With the help of Pundt and her church member Nancy Fett, she got to work on pulling together the resources to create the Holy Land.
“We found that most of the creative people wanted to help flush this all out and put it together, so it flowed,” said Ellingson. “Nancy (Fett), Carolyn (Pundt) and the creative folks really helped make this a reality.”
Once the stations were set, Ellingson recruited volunteers to host the event. Hosts and hostesses rotate in every hour for the 12-hour day. They greet the visitors, give them booklets and share how to interact with each station.
“Something I never imagined.”
In 2016, Ellingson tried the first Walking the Last Days of Jesus, which turned out to be a huge success.
“In two years, it’s become something I never even imagined,” said Ellingson. “It started as this small little vision for the two little churches that I serve and who knew what could happen.”
Ellingson and her congregation decided to open the doors of the church for the event for 12 hours to accommodate retirees, working families, students and everyone in between.
“The idea was to give people the chance to come during the day or after supper, whenever is most convenient for them,” she said.
That timeframe ended up benefitting the event and those who attended. Many of the church members who attended earlier the day asked if they could bring friends and family later on in the day. This year, the excitement seems to have only grown.
“This year people were asking if we were going to do this again,” she said. “Now we’re talking vanloads of people that are telling me they’re going to come because they want their friends and kids to experience this.”
The event isn’t about large numbers of people, though, Ellingson hopes the walk will ultimately help feel more connected during Holy Week.
“It’s really to give folks an opportunity to come and experience this together,” she said.
Walking the Last Days of Jesus will be held at Donnellson UMC, 221 University St., Donnellson, Iowa, from 8 am to 8 pm on Friday, April 14. The event is free and open to the public.
The Wilton United Methodist Church has continued its mission-minded living into 2017. At the end of Advent season, the church raised more than $7,000 to donate to purchasing water pumps and pump maintenance training. This year, 24 people affiliated with the church volunteered at Sager Brown UMCOR Depot in Baldwin, La., leaving Iowa Jan. 21 and returning Jan. 28.
“We have a very committed, mission-oriented church,” Lanette Morgan, team leader for the mission trip, said about the large group. “We don’t need a lot of motivation to get people to do a mission.”
Several church members from Wilton go on mission trips with other groups and organizations. But, the Wilton UMC Mission Team tries to plan a large group mission trip every other year and smaller, closer-to-home trips said Connie Zeleny, chair of the Mission Team. In the past, teams have gone to the UMCOR Distribution Center in Chatham, Illinois, and to the Tree of Life Ministry in Mission, SD.
Morgan and the Mission Team decided to go to Sager Brown this year to change up the scenery from the Midwest and get people a little more excited to go.
“We thought people probably wanted to experience something more exciting and a different culture,” she said. “People like to escape cold Iowa winters, and that may have been some incentive for people to go!”
Morgan said the enthusiasm was immediate. Within two to three weeks of announcing the mission trip, 20 spots had filled up. In the end, 22 people from Wilton and two friends of the church members from Georgia went to Sager Brown.
Like in years past, the planning of a large group mission trip takes time, money and energy. Typically, church groups must reserve dates at mission sites a year or more in advance, said Morgan. The last trip to Chatham, Morgan had to reserve dates a year in advance. This time for the trip to Sager Brown, she had to reserve slots more than two years in advance.
“This has been a two-and-a-half year project because you have to make reservations that far in advance,” said Morgan. “Sager Brown is such a popular mission site.”
After the dates are set and approved, $25 per person must be sent to Sager Brown for registration. After the registration fee is paid, then comes the paperwork. A talent survey helps the Sager Brown staff place volunteers for work. Volunteers must sign liability and medical forms, provide proof of insurance and pass a background check. Morgan coordinated all the paperwork, except for the background check, which Pastor Mike Agnew handled.
The next step was raising money for the trip. The cost per person was $120 for lodging and $110 for meals. Additionally, Sager Brown required each person bring $50 to donate school supplies to 10 children. Luckily, the Mission Team holds an annual auction that raises thousands of dollars for mission work. The Mission team donated $90 towards the cost of food and lodging and covered the cost of school supplies donations.
“The whole church gets involved with the auction,” said Zeleny. “It has helped us do mission work in the community and outside of the community.”
The team arrived on Sunday, Jan. 22, and was able to meet with other volunteers in food and fellowship. The next day, though, the team went right to work. Volunteers helped with several projects at Sager Brown.
Some fill school kits and stitch the school bags, while others put together health kits. At the depot, several group members helped load semis with school and health kits going to Lebanon. Some of the group went into Baldwin and helped build and install a wheelchair ramp at a local home. Other outreach ministries were available to help with including light cleaning at a facility for the elderly, reading with children at a Head Start and helping with maintenance at a domestic violence shelter.
Most the projects helped people outside of Sager Brown, but one project helped the volunteers. Two of the Wilton team members turned several of the wooden Adirondack chairs into relaxing rockers for volunteers after a long day at work.
It wasn’t all hard work during their time in Baldwin, though. The volunteers got a much-deserved day off. They visited the Tabasco hot sauce factory on Avery Island and Vermillionville, a historical site like Living History Farms in Des Moines. The homes and “actors” are descendants of the indigenous people in the area including Arcadians, Native Americans, and Creole. They also visited a state park on the Gulf of Mexico.
This year’s mission trip and previous mission trips are continual reminders to the Wilton church members of our duty as Christians, said Zeleny. And often, those working in mission feel just as blessed as those they are helping.
“Sometimes it feels like we were so much more blessed than the blessings we brought,” she said.
For more photos and stories from the mission trip, visit the Wilton UMC to Sager Brown Facebook page.