Christian Aid Legends: The Road Warrior
‘There’s always music playing, traffic around you. Nothing is ever silent or still. I’m looking forward to completely slowing down and taking the time to actually look at the world.’
Enthusiastic and instantly likeable, Helen Olley, 24, could easily be describing plans for an Easter break. In fact, she’s referring to the decision that she and her boyfriend Nick have taken to spend six months walking from Canterbury to Jerusalem.
Yes, you read that correctly - Walking from Canterbury to Jerusalem.
That’s not to suggest the decision’s been taken lightly; behind Helen’s optimism, there’s a striking depth of thought. A year ago, Helen visited Israel with her mother. Reflections on that trip formed the catalyst for her decision.
‘I was very affected by my trip. When I came back, having seen some of the things I’d seen, I just – I didn’t leave it.
We did a whole bus journey, took about three hours, from Jerusalem up through Jericho to the Northern region. I was just thinking, Christ and his disciples actually walked that route…’
She describes how, as plans evolved, they were influenced by other stories from the Via Francigena pilgrim path and the long history of pilgrimage within the Christian tradition.
‘The act of pilgrimage, it’s very powerful. It’s an act of witness to the Christian faith. It’s also going directly against the flow of migrants out of the Middle East, and we started to think that we could walk for all the people leaving the region.’
Amidst her enthusiasm, Helen acknowledges some anxieties over the route, the heat and general discomfort, alongside the personal battle to recognise what can and can’t be controlled.
‘A very important bible verse for me has always been “do not worry about tomorrow, tomorrow will worry about itself”. I’m a big one for worrying about hypotheticals.
The whole point of embarking on the road is that you open yourself to all sorts of things you don’t anticipate. The idea is that you become very reliant on God and learn much more about yourself.’
With Helen’s walking experience mostly the result of Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, it’s clear that the journey will be a team effort.
‘The first practice walk we did was from Canterbury to Dover. Great walk, lovely scenery… I got us lost three times. Every time Nick would be like "it’s fine, we can’t be that lost".
He’s completely crazy as well, just in a different way. Many years ago, he walked the length of Bermuda. They just set off, him and his Dad, in their flip-flops and shorts. I think it was one of the most traumatic experiences of his life. But they kept going.’
Helen is positive too about the backing of family and friends, and how much the support from various church families has meant to them. ‘I’ve got the prayers of three churches behind me, she jokes, what could possibly go wrong?’
The money the couple raise in sponsorship will go to Christian Aid, tackling global poverty. Helen’s connection to charity started as a child, delivering the iconic red envelopes during Christian Aid Week. However, she admits it was Rowan Williams, previous archbishop of Canterbury, who inspired her to engage with the charity in her own right.
‘I’m a big fan of trusting the charities you know. I like the way that Christian Aid work. They work with local partners, not just sending themselves out assuming they have all the answers. And they’re one of the only charities still doing really good work in the whole region. They are also an explicitly Christian charity. For us, it’s really important that people know exactly where we’re coming from.’
As a student, Helen became an active member of the Oxford University Christian Aid Society, though not, she acknowledges, until her Masters year.
‘I don’t know if this is true of students generally, but I spent so much time thinking about good things and never actually doing anything.
That’s the hardest bit, going out and committing to something. That’s what is great about young people, student movements, the Collective. We need to tap all that energy, all those ideas people have. Faith in action. That’s what we have to be working on now.
I think that’s, ultimately, why we’re walking.’