Run an Internet search for the term “walk across America” and you’ll come up with all sorts of results. There’s the overweight man sweating to lose excess poundage state by state. The couple strolling to celebrate liberty. The mom and daughter rallying people to be more aware of breast cancer, one stride at a time.
And then there’s the trekking tandem of Jon Leonetti and Jesse Weiler. Last spring and summer the two young Catholic men — who dubbed their project Souly Walking — walked across America to promote prayer.
The two began their journey on March 1 in Ocean Park, Calif. Five months, 12 states and 3,600 miles later, they dipped their feet in the cool waters of the Atlantic Ocean at Ocean City, N.J.
“It was by far the most difficult and challenging experience that both of us have ever taken,” Leonetti said, before adding that the payoff was worth the pain.
Leonetti says the idea for the undertaking came to him through prayer. The former seminarian says he got the notion while asking God, “What would you like me to do next?” When he approached Weiler, his good friend from Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, asking him to join him, he received a predictable reaction.
“I thought he was crazy, absolutely nuts,” recalls Weiler with a laugh. But the idea wouldn’t leave him. Before he knew it, he and Jon were searching for a cause to walk for.
“We looked at the Church and asked, ‘What is the biggest need?’ The biggest need we found was prayer, entering into relationship with God and no longer treating our faith as a hobby,” says Leonetti. “We wanted to make this journey especially for the youth.”
Averaging 15 to 25 miles a day, the two relied on divine Providence for food and lodging. They kept family, friends and fans updated through regular updates on their website and blog, SoulyWalking.com.
The website synopsizes the pair’s mission: “We are asking young people to live life in a new way — a life no longer focused on the empty promises of this MTV generation, but a life that is focused on the promise of fulfillment, immersing ourselves in the love of God through prayer. … The time is now, young people of the Catholic Church, to plunge ourselves into our faith, a faith which brings us the rich mystery and love of Our Lord.”
Along the way, Leonetti and Weiler spoke at churches, schools and youth gatherings.
Cindy Black, director for the Office of Youth Ministry in the Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend, Ind., organized a number of speaking engagements for Leonetti and Weiler. She says it takes a lot to impress young people, but her youth tuned in when they found out what Souly Walking was up to.
“They listened attentively and had lots of questions,” recalls Black. “The teens really liked the fact that Jon and Jesse didn’t have a real in-your-face, Bible-thumping message. They just walked and waited for people to ask about their mission.”
They also won the approval of Des Moines, Iowa, Bishop Richard Pates. “Jon is an outstanding young man who has very deep convictions of faith and who wanted to express that conviction with this walk, and calling the young people to pay attention to faith in their own lives,” the bishop told the Register. “I feel that Jon is accomplishing much in generosity and service to the Church, and doing what he can in his own way to promote a deepening of faith in our times.”
In their talks, Leonetti explained that the walk itself was a good metaphor for the spiritual life. He describes Ocean Park in Los Angeles, where the two started, as analogous to the “place” young people go when they decide to get real with God.
“When we went out to California, we were excited, somewhat confused and not sure what to expect,” he explains. In the mountains of Colorado, he says, they were “on top of the world” — as if on an inspiring religious retreat. But they could not stay there forever and soon had to continue on down the mountain into the flatlands.
“We liked to call Nebraska the spiritual flatland of our journey,” Leonetti says. “It was completely flat, lonely, and no one was around. Just like the spiritual life: When the feeling is not there anymore in your faith, you question yourself, and you don’t know how you are going to continue on. Then, there is that fourth stage of the journey — perseverance.”
Just Getting Started
The two credit God’s grace for the perseverance that got them to their final destination. While the Atlantic Ocean was a welcome sight for sore eyes and tired feet, the two are adamant that there is still much journeying to do. The next step is continuing evangelization.
With a background in media arts, Weiler is putting together a documentary with the more than 30 hours of video that the two shot. Leonetti is working on a book about their journey, as well as launching a career as a Catholic speaker.
“In sharing our experiences, we hope we can help people grow and persevere through their difficult or dry spiritual experiences in their own lives,” says Weiler.
Both admit to many days entertaining thoughts of calling it quits. Neither counted on the mental challenge it takes to get up and walk day in and day out. And yet, Weiler explains, quitting was never an option.
“This walk was never about us,” he says. “We did this, quite frankly, for the young people of the Church. It was to let them know that prayer means so much to us that we would literally walk across the country for it. It was not our walk: It was God’s walk.”
Eddie O’Neill writes from
Green Bay, Wisconsin.