It is a typical Saturday morning along the Salt Lake Valley’s Jordan River. The sun’s rays shimmer as they reflect off calm waters, the birds’ warbles create a peaceful harmony, and the squirrels’ chatter echoes through the trees. Suddenly, the usual tranquility of the early morning is interrupted as large clusters of people round a bend in the smooth trail that runs along the river. There are 500 people of all ages and denominations. What’s more, they are laughing and talking together.
Maybe this isn’t such a typical Saturday.
It was last April that Brighton High School senior Gweneth Thomas decided that she needed to get more involved in service. So she approached a representative of Church World Service, an interfaith organization dedicated to helping fellow Christians in times of need. She soon became at least 80 hours immersed in service as she agreed to become the organization’s first youth coordinator of the annual Christian Rural Overseas Program walk.
CROP walks are worldwide fundraisers for struggling countries in times of crisis. Volunteers are asked to pledge money and then walk a six-mile course to help them appreciate the hardships of fellow Christians all over the world.
The theme of the 1996 walk was “We walk because they walk,” referring to the individuals in many developing countries who must walk five or six hours a day to find food and water.
Traditionally, CROP walks have excluded Latter-day Saints from participation. The first time LDS youth were invited to join the walk was in 1995, and Gweneth says they were invited back because “we didn’t preach; we just set an example.” In fact, Utah’s example has started a nationwide tolerance of LDS people in the annual event.
Besides raising money for the needy, Gweneth and her co-chair, Max Freeman, had a very specific goal in mind for the 1996 walk. They wanted members of the ten participating religions to work to break down the barriers between each other and move from intolerance to acceptance, from acceptance to respect, and finally from respect to love.
But before any of this could happen, Gweneth and Max felt they needed to get teenagers involved as well as adults. They started in their high school cafeteria. Fellow Brighton High students Alina Stay, Brenna Flynn, and Mindy Pitts observed their classmates’ reactions to Gweneth’s pleas for donations.
“What doesn’t seem like a lot of money to me will feed a lot of people [in another country],” says Mindy.
Brenna, a convert to the Church, was especially concerned with helping Gweneth and Max create peaceful interfaith relations through the walk.
The most exciting part of the event for her was seeing that goal fulfilled as “people from other faiths shared testimonies and showed the true spirit of Christianity without the normal my-church-is-better-than-your-church attitude,” she says.
“Build up trust and gain a respect for each other,” says Max.
And not only did the teens spur these good relations between denominations while donating money; they walked as well.
Perhaps it was the strenuous six-mile walk. Perhaps it was the wooden signs along the trails with poignant messages. Perhaps it was the experience of associating with people of many different faiths. Whatever the case, the mood at the picnic afterward was reflective.
Everyone seemed to sense what Gweneth put into words, “One person can make a big difference.”