A group of Protestant pilgrims are exercising their legs in an untypical fashion these days: by stepping in the pedals. Their 14-day Bike Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace winds along both sides of the Rhine from Constance to Worms.
As "messengers of justice and peace", the pilgrims were sent off by church councillor Mattias Kreplin of The Evangelical Church in Baden, Alsatian church president Christian Albecker, president of the Conference of Churches on the Rhine, and church president Wilfried Bührer of the Evangelical Church of the Canton of Thurgau.
The patronage of the Conference of Churches on the Rhine is all the more remarkable since pilgrimages have long been frowned upon by the Protestant church. Over 500 years ago, the Protestant reformers spoke out against the sales of letters of indulgence and the worshipping of relics. Since then, however, pilgrimages have made inroads into ecumenism, says retired deacon Achim Zobel, lead organizer of the one-off bike pilgrimage from Constance to Worms. The bike pilgrimage is in response to the call of the Assembly of the World Council of Churches back in 2013, inviting all of its 348 member churches to join in a worldwide pilgrimage of justice and peace.
In the 500th year of the Protestant Reformation, this pilgrimage follows the trail of historical church reformers in the Rhine region and visits important locations for reformation and transformation. The event is intended to stimulate a transformation - a process where you can personally transform yourself and also embark on a social healing process. For this reason, Alsatian church president Albecker advised the cyclists to leave most of their baggage behind and carry a light load. He wasn't just referring to cycling, but also in a sense to life in general.
Many movements gave rise to the Reformation
Within just the first two days of the trip, it became clear: alongside the great church reformer Martin Luther, there were many other great theologians and reformation movements. They all contributed to a new way of thinking and heralded the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern era.
The beginning of the pilgrimage trail in Constance pays homage to Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1415 for his convictions and doctrines, and brings to life the papal claimants of the late 14th century, whose bickering led to the Council of Constance anointing a new pope.
The next stopover, Schaffhausen, is where followers of the Anabaptist movement, known for their practise of adult baptism, hid from the Catholic church. Many of them had fled from Zurich.
The support of the farmers during the peasant wars by the reformer Thomas Müntzer led to the bloody suppression of a peasant uprising in Griessen am Hochrhein, Pastor Thomas Kaiser explained to the cyclists. Like many others, Müntzer penned many hymns. The songs facilitated the spread of new ideas among the general public, many of whom could neither read nor write.
And to this day in the Protestant church, there's plenty of singing - also on the bike pilgrimage. One of the songs is called: "Vertraut den neuen Wegen" [Trust the new pathways].
New pathways can also be discovered in the congregations. For example, the Open Church Elisabethenkirche in Basel, the "research and development laboratory" of the canton's Evangelical-Reformed Church, is ecumenically led by a Protestant pastor and a Roman Catholic theologian and prides itself on being an event and meeting place for people who would otherwise not normally attend church. "We want to be an alternative to the cathedrals of consumption - a place where people can be without needing to consume anything," declares Rev. Frank Lorenz.
The church is attracting attention by boldly exploring new frontiers with creative offerings, such as Carnival services, prayer services for motorcyclists and their bikes, a "pet benediction" for pet owners and their pets and an ATM for credit or debit card donations alongside the traditional collection box.
The route of the Bike Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace winds through Germany, France and Switzerland. The oldest participant, who is 79 years of age, is showing the youngsters what fitness is all about: without the aid of an electric bike, she cheerfully pedals around 50 kilometres a day, often at the head of the pack.
Participants build fellowship as they assist each other with any technical problems with the bikes and share in the grocery shopping for breakfast. The community spirit equally benefits from the ebullient conversation - on aching muscles, on the church, on life and how many things can be changed for the good when "a lot of ordinary people do a lot of ordinary things differently."
There is also fellowship galore each evening in the church congregations, where the vestries provide cosy overnighting on mats or in sleeping bags and the pilgrims are treated to warm hospitality and maybe a hot meal.
Lectures on renewable energy and the financial system
During a stop at the Müllheim-Staufen public utility works, the pilgrims learned how solidarity opens the door to new solutions. This local co-op has adopted the ambitious goal of producing and marketing electricity and heat exclusively from renewable energy sources.
But not everything was a sight for sore eyes for the pilgrims on their journey. Stops at the Rheinmetall munitions factory and the Fessenheim nuclear power plant served as painful reminders of human folly. Only when these threats are recognised can true change or transformation take place.
And so, on the road through Alsace with stops in Colmar, Sélestat and Strasbourg, the pilgrims focused not only on the great reformers, Martin Bucer and John Calvin, but also on what the Biblical message means today in our modern secular and multi-faith society.
In Rastatt, the pilgrim's thoughts turned to Hiroshima, the Revolutions of 1848/49 and the human conscience. Other typical events on the way to Worms included city walks and lectures on the international financial system or "Vom gerechten Krieg zum gerechten Frieden – von der Reformation zu einer notwendigen Transformation" [From legitimate war to legitimate peace - from the Reformation to a necessary transformation].
The Bike Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace runs through 11 August. Those interested may cycle alongside the pilgrims during the daytime.