Rhode Islander recalls 1987 coast-to-coast pilgrimage

by Dave Seifert

Thirty years ago this year, two Rhode Island Episcopalians set out on a walk in Seattle, Washington. Nearly four months later, they finished their walk — at the Cathedral of St. John in Providence.

Jack Kirkconnell, senior warden at Church of the Ascension, Cranston at that time, and his friend, Dan Whipple (who was senior warden at St. David’s-on-the-Hill and died in 2014), did the walk to raise awareness about hunger and the homeless. They had been commissioned as “missionaries for hunger” by the Rt. Rev. George N. Hunt III, bishop of Rhode Island.

It’s a story of good works. And a story of community. But most importantly, it’s a story of faith.

Kirkconnell, now 82, firmly believes one thing helped him and Whipple make it from coast to coast: ““Prayer,” he said, “is the only reason we made it. I remember places where all you could see was waves of grain. When the wind blew, it looked like the waves at Narragansett. All the prayers kept us going.”

They raised nearly $1 million in contributions to the Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief (now known as Episcopal Relief and Development). All along the way, people and churches collected the money in envelopes they carried, and then they mailed the envelopes back to Rhode Island.

The walk, which began at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, took them through 16 dioceses. On Sundays, Kirkconnell and Whipple would tell their faith stories in Episcopal missions, churches and cathedrals — delivering lectures and even some sermons.

“People came out all along the way from Episcopal dioceses,” Kirkconnell recalled, “and we would tell them our story.”

A motor home driven by two parishioners from St. David’s — Michael Reeves and Tom Blackinton — accompanied the two trekkers and gave them a place to eat and rest each night. But Episcopalians from the dioceses along the way helped with that, too.

Kirkconnell recalls being invited to a cookout on a ranch in Montana. The hosts invited their next-door-neighbor — who lived 90 miles away.

In Omaha, Nebraska, which was about halfway to Providence, they spent a long weekend staying in the bishop’s retreat house. Their wives flew to Omaha and joined them for that interlude.

And their home rectors even met them in Syracuse, New York, and walked part of the way with them.

The connections they made during the walk didn’t end when the walk was finished. Kirkconnell said he and Whipple were still getting letters and newspaper articles from priests and parishioners a few years later.

“We planted the seeds with other people,” he said. “Others could do that today.”

Jack Kirkconnell with press clippings from his 1987 pilgrimage