A pilgrim's progress to Paris

Climate Pilgrims on their way to Paris © Hannah Henderson

Shropshire URC member Howard Hutchings talks to Tomilola Ajayi, Christian Aid press officer, about what inspired him to walk from London to Paris, and why climate justice is an issue very dear to his heart. 

Just over a week ago, retired geography teacher Howard Hutchings completed a journey of a lifetime: a ‘climate pilgrimage’ that spanned two weeks, two countries and 200 miles, entirely on foot. 

Howard, from Shrewsbury, joined dozens other British Christians on a ‘Pilgrimage2Paris’, which saw them sleeping in churches, halls and homes for a fortnight, as they travelled through streets, roads, country lanes and fields from London to the French capital. 

Organised by Christian Aid, Tearfund, CAFOD and the Church of England, the journey was a way to show solidarity with communities suffering the adverse effects of climate change. With each step, they were calling on world leaders to strike a fair and ambitious deal at the United Nations climate summit, currently underway in Paris.

Speaking in Paris, at the end of the pilgrimage, 61-year-old Howard is tired but happy. “We’ve clocked over 200 miles,” he says. “I’m here because I feel very passionately about environmental issues. 

“I’m a geography teacher, and for many years I’ve been trying to promote the link between our Christian faith and environmental issues… My church, Shrewsbury United Reformed, is an eco-congregation. We’re really quite passionate about bringing forward these issues.”

The link between faith and the environment is what united the walkers, who hailed from all parts of Britain and all parts of the Church. They set out from central London – clad in sturdy boots, matching sweatshirts and big smiles – on Friday November 13. But later that day, their destination city was shaken by a series of terrorist incidents. 

“After the tragedies of November 13, we’ve had to be sensitive to the fact that this is a city in grief. When it first happened, we were only one day into the journey. We asked ourselves: ‘Should this pilgrimage continue?’

“We were going to a country that had really seen awful events. We knew we could continue at least to Newhaven [East Essex] and from there, the aid agencies could advise us. By the time we got to Newhaven, a week later, they felt it was safe for us to continue. And on the French side, they were willing to welcome us.”

Indeed, it’s the ‘welcome’ that made a real impact on Howard during the trip. “Through all the church halls we passed through, from England to northern France, the hospitality has been absolutely wonderful. 

“There has been a generosity among everyone involved: they’ve almost borne us up and sent us out from their communities. They have welcomed us unbelievably well. There’s a real spiritual dimension to this, in the sense that they’re witnessing for us and spreading the message after we’ve gone. 

“It really is the abiding memory for me and for lots of the pilgrims. And we sense there’s something very positive coming out of this. Two weeks ago, we saw the very worst of humanity. Now we’re seeing how we should be as human beings: supporting each other, helping each other.”

When it comes to climate change, Howard is clear on the need to stand in solidarity with the world’s poor: those facing the worst impacts of global warming, but who have done the least to cause it. This is why he joined the call from Christian Aid and the other church agencies behind the ‘Pilgrimage2Paris’. 

With real passion in his voice, he says: “Climate change is one of the root causes of poverty. People are losing their habitats: their farmland is drying out or being flooded. 

“If people have no livelihoods, we’ll be in a situation where these people are going to leave their homes: the current refugee crisis that we’re seeing across Europe will be nothing compared to the mass migration that could happen from countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Bangladesh or even other regions of the world.” 

He continues: “This is a legacy for us, just as slavery was 300 years ago. Future generations may look back and ask: ‘How did they deal with this crisis? Did they build barriers across their nations and stop people coming in?’ It’s very challenging, but I just hope that world leaders will recognise their obligation to respond to this need. I hope the UN summit provides a vision for a way forward.” 

There is no time to lose, Howard believes. “We’ve been wrecking the environment for decades and we’ve just got to recognise we can’t use the earth’s resources in this way. The Earth has rights too. I think the biblical message is that God has given us this wonderful world – one that includes the whole of the created order, not just humanity. And that’s the message we’re here to communicate in Paris.”