By MARTIN de JONG
For the third year, walking an ecumenical prayer pilgrimage along Te Awa Kairangi (Hutt River) in Wellington brought a range of people outdoors to connect with God and each other during the Season of Creation. In previous years, the (mainly Catholic and Anglican) organisers have dealt with Covid restrictions and health concerns.
This year, despite the threat of heavy rain and strong winds leading up to the event, a few showers and cold southerlies on the day did nothing to deter the spirits of those who joined for various lengths of time. Some four hardy souls walked the whole distance of more than 25 kilometres. The more adventurous also took an alternative route for one stage, on the western bank of the river through mature bush and scenic views along ancient river terraces.
Groups and individuals came and went as numbers ebbed and flowed like the tide. A group of “Life Teeners” at Avalon swelled the group to more than 20 for the stages down to central Lower Hutt. Fourteen people were on Pito-one (Petone) beach for the final prayer shortly before sunset.
The journey began with an outdoor Mass at Harcourt Park celebrated by Fr Kevin Connors of St Joseph’s, Upper Hutt, at 8.30am – on the first day of daylight saving. At the other end, St James Anglican Church in Lower Hutt hosted pilgrims with refreshments at 4.30pm, before the final leg to the sea.
Nine prayer points along the way kept the pilgrims buoyed up with song, prayer and praise, using a prayer and reflection booklet prepared especially for the event. This booklet was also shared online, along with a “Prayer Sponsor Sheet” for people who couldn’t join in person, but who wished to pray for the river and its people virtually. An activity and reflection sheet for children was also distributed to churches.
A Sunday Seminar two weeks before the event raised awareness about the river through personal and professional reflections. About 30 people heard from river rangers on their daily efforts to clean up and protect the river, from a regional councillor on the whole of catchment approach to improving the environment, and from community representatives on restoration and protection efforts around the river and tributaries.
Among the speakers, Shaun Killerby, senior advisor to the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, noted the interconnected nature of the river in a presentation on the estuary: “Rather than seeing the estuary as the last few kilometres of the river, tidally influenced,” he said, “see it with new eyes: as the bottom of the Te Awa Kairangi catchment, reflecting all our values, attitudes, and actions upstream.”
Each prayer walk has provided its own flavour, challenges, and deepening connection with the river.
Helen Willberg, pathfinder and stalwart of the “Western Way”, recounted some of her highlights from this year: “It was surprisingly cheering to have someone meeting us at the waypoints. Groups coming to meet us! The Western loop was very different, and my team loved it! . . . I felt quite euphoric after the walk. . . . Great to have a hot drink at St James. The sense of spirituality in the beginning and ending, the camaraderie along the way.” She already has plans and ideas for extending the next one in its scope and mission.
One of the founding organisers, Catherine Gibbs, reflected on this year’s journey: “I can no longer see my awa as just a river that runs down the valley to the sea, but a beautiful spirit that carries with it numerous community connections, both human and other than human. I now see how vital it is to pay attention to what we are doing which will have important ramifications for future lives and livelihoods.”
Photos, reflections and learnings from the event – and previous years – are available through: https://www.facebook.com/groups/riverprayerwalk.