Sweating but smiling. That's the shared characteristic among the college-aged participants of the 2014 Crossroads Walk, an annual summer pro-life walk across North America.
NCR met up with one group of Crossroads walkers Saturday in Overland Park, Kan., where the group gathered to pray outside a Planned Parenthood Comprehensive Health Center.
Wearing white T-shirts labeled with fluorescent letters spelling out "PRO LIFE," the walkers spoke to NCR about their mission to raise awareness through their on-foot ministry, which they view as a witness to all human life.
"Crossroads is a very unique ministry because it's very tangible, very real ministry in that you're walking," said Alex Wilson, 21, the team's leader. "It's very physical. You're literally out in the streets walking and peacefully witnessing to the gospel of life," said Wilson, a senior from Ave Maria University studying theology and psychology.
Crossroads is a Catholic nonprofit organization started in 1995 that invites anyone ages 18 to 30 to walk across the continent to promote the pro-life cause. This year marks Crossroads' 20th annual walk.
Three groups with eight to 11 people apiece started off May 24 at different points on the Pacific coast. The northern walk began in Seattle; the central walk, San Francisco; and the southern walk, Los Angeles. The groups simultaneously trek across the country, converging in Washington, D.C., for an Aug. 16 pro-life rally outside the U.S. Capitol. A walk across Canada began May 24 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and will culminate in an Aug. 16 pro-life rally in Ottawa, Ontario.
This year's participants in the U.S. walks come from colleges throughout the nation, including Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Participants spend their weekdays walking along secondary highways and county roads, about 55 to 60 miles a day. A typical day for the central walk team, which is made up of eight people, an RV and a support van, goes as follows:
The four-person morning shift starts walking by sunrise. Two people walk while the other two drive the van 3 miles down the road. When the walkers meet the van, they switch with the drivers, who begin walking. This process is repeated until around midday.
Meanwhile, the afternoon shift spends the morning doing dishes and cleaning the RV. They take over walking in the afternoon while the morning shift restocks supplies and prepares dinner. The central team has been averaging about 300 miles a week.
On weekends, the walkers stop at major cities. They pray outside of abortion clinics on Saturdays and give presentations on activism and raise funds at local parishes after Sunday Mass. The funds support Crossroads, which covers living expenses for the walkers, with the exception of airfare to and from the walk's beginning and end locations. After speaking with NCR, the central walk team continued east. Their next weekend stop will be Saturday and Sunday in St. Louis.
During their country-length odyssey of witnessing, walkers engage those they come across.
"Our witness in missioning is to also create conversations with those we encounter, so maybe not directly conversing with us, but amongst themselves," Wilson said. "You definitely see the reactions in the cars: People give you thumbs up or the middle finger. It's very clear that this is having an effect on them because they're reacting. And that's good. It's good to get into conversations about these sorts of issues because they're very important in today's society, to be talked about and to be acted upon accordingly."
According to Wilson, the walkers jump right into their journey, foregoing any preliminary physical training. "After about the first two weeks, you're pretty conditioned and good to go," Wilson said.
Walkers endure heat, elevation, blisters and walking pains, but they stay upbeat.
"You remember that you're doing this for the unborn, and you just keep offering it up, and you say another rosary and keep going," said Molly Sheahan, 20.
A student at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, Sheahan said she's developed shin splits, and "they've been really killer. I've been offering them up every mile."
For safety, walkers walk in pairs, stick to the far part of road shoulders and avoid freeways. Their support van stays nearby, stocked with water.
The walkers encounter some opposition, including occasional obscene gestures and expletives. Sheahan said an abortion clinic in Reno, N.V., had signs that compared people praying on sidewalks to terrorists and called pro-life people names.
Crossroads participants say they are effecting change, even if it isn't immediately apparent. "A lot of the difference we make we'll never see," Wilson said.
During 2013's northern walk, Wilson said he met a woman and her young daughter in a small Montana restaurant. The woman told Wilson that five years earlier, she was on her way to a have an abortion when she saw Crossroads walkers.
Wilson said she told him: "I was on the fence about it. I wasn't sure if this was the right thing to do, and I saw you guys walking with your shirts that said 'pro-life,' and it was a very clear sign to me not to go through with the abortion. And so here is my 5-year-old daughter, whom you guys have saved, just by your witness to life."
Wilson said people call Crossroads' national office throughout the year and share similar stories of impact.
According to its website, Crossroads began in response to Pope John Paul II's call to the youth during the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver to proclaim the gospel of life.
"Taking this very literally, we go out, and not only do we unite our prayers but our sufferings to the cross and in so doing, witness to the dignity and sanctity of all human life," Wilson said.