Holy rolling urban strolling

How do people walk around the city in which you live? With minds alert for bargains, or perhaps with shoulders huddled against the wind, rain and spray or maybe with eyes wide looking at the architecture. How many might be walking round focussed on prayer? How many people might given the impetus?

For 12 months in 2002/3 I worked part-time as the interim Methodist Chaplain to Bradford University and College. During this time several ideas came together resulting in the ‘Bradford Prayer Walk’ leaflet – a professionally printed leaflet that would slot seamlessly in with the self-guided tourism walks around the city.

The idea had it’s genesis with HOST – the alternative worship group I belonged to based in Thornbury, an inner city area of Bradford. The original idea was to set up a 12 month ‘city centre labyrinth’ in which people would follow a printed route across the city with installations on route. We figured these would be a mix of ‘official’ installations on church property – all outside so the labyrinth could be followed on any day of the week and at any time, and installations or prayer activities that would be created by the walker for the duration of their visit.

We got as far as discussing the idea with the ecumenical ‘inner city task group’ but as is a regular problem for a group with thousands of ideas but only a handful of people to put them into action, we never found to time to make it a reality.

The University Christian Union at Bradford were one of the groups I came into contact with as chaplain. To be honest, they blew me away with their dedication and enthusiasm for prayer – 24/7 events, small group prayer meetings and ‘prayer walks’ in which a small group would walk round the local streets and pray for the people and places they saw were just a few of the many activities forming a regular part of their lives as a worshipping community.

Out of these two groups, plus input and support from the other staff at the Methodist city centre presence where I was based as chaplain – “Touchstone” – the ‘Bradford Prayer Walk’ leaflet was born.

The idea quickly gained momentum, from a chat with members of the CU over Mexican food and beer with city centre maps as the tablecloth, to several walks of possible routes through the city, more and more ideas of the places we should encourage people to visit sprang to life. Photographs were taken by both Richard of the CU and Darren of HOST. The prayers and text were written by anyone who wanted to be involved. Bradford City Centre Management granted us permission to use their map of the City Centre to illustrate the route.

The criteria for the project was fairly simple:

  • it must be an achievable distance and enable people to join the route at wherever was most convenient for them, hence a circular route was established
  • it needed to be accessible to both Christians and non-Christians alike, Bradford is a ‘multi-faithful’ city and this could not be ignored even though the content was to be unashamedly Christian
  • most of all, it should challenge people to recognise God in the heart of the city, in the everyday – not the expected places such as Churches, Mosques and the Cathedral but at the bus stop, in the supermarket and outside the townhall.

We decided the walk should begin in the ‘transport interchange’, much to the approval of the Methodist City Centre worker, Geoff Reid – a vocal public transport enthusiast. The first obvious stopping point was the first area of city park ‘Bradford by the sea’ which has pebbles, running water and wooden donkeys. These stoic animals quickly became symbolic of Jesus entering another city – Jerusalem.

From there it’s a largely hilly, but rewarding walk that takes in both Bradford’s past (the city is especially rich in Methodist history) and the post-industrial global Bradford of the 21st Century.

After calling in at the main shopping precinct and stopping to peer through the glass walls of the newspaper printing presses, the walk ends with a chance for rest and reflection in another of the city garden areas.

The name ‘Brad-ford’ represents the city’s origins as a safe place to cross the water than runs through the valley on which the city is now built. In the walk, this ever present water represents the Holy Spirit, perhaps ‘streams in the wasteland’ (Isaiah 43:18-25). The days when many of Bradford’s buildings would flood after heavy rainfall are now thankfully in the past, but since the prayer walk was printed the city has a new vision – to flood the town centre(!) creating a lake and leisure amenities, thus reinventing people’s perceptions of the city.

Our idea was to get the prayer walk leaflet into all the tourist leaflet racks alongside the ‘Bradford – city of film’ and Civic History trails. We hoped people might discover God in the city in the same way they might discover some of the city’s architectural gems or its fascinating heritage. We wanted to challenge a few preconceptions ourselves.

On publishing the leaflet, the local newspaper, the Telegraph and Argus, ran an unprecedented 2-page centre-spread in the Saturday edition featuring almost all of the locations and prayers in the leaflet. Suddenly our little prayer walk had reached a massive audience.

Publication coincided with both the end of my stint as Chaplain as the new permanent Chaplain took over and my relocation to another part of Yorkshire. The students involved will have also moved on although some did intend to stay in the city, but the last I heard, the leaflet is still out there. Hopefully a few of the people walking around Bradford City Centre today are doing so with a prayer in their heart, stopping at the donkeys, walking in the footsteps of Christ and looking for the spirit flowing through the city.

Adrian Riley is a graphic designer living in ‘Digital Scarborough’ on the North East Coast of Yorkshire. He also produces and edits an online emerging church magazine that you may be fairly familiar with…