On Wednesday 10th June this year, Malcolm Kisubi, Jared More, Andrew Weeks along with myself departed to Manchester Airport at 2:56am on a train from York. As if that wasn’t adventurous enough, we were embarking on a journey called ‘Escape and Pray’ organised by Fusion to go to an unknown European city; to live on a measly 20 Euros each for two nights and to pray for and connect with local churches there. I don’t think it was possible to be truly prepared for what was ahead, but we were going nonetheless. Journeying into the unknown in a very literal sense.
Once we arrived at Manchester Airport, we opened the mysterious orange envelopes we'd been given to find that our location was Venice, Italy (Not – as I loudly and semi-ironically proclaimed once we stepped off the plane – ‘Vienna’!). We gathered ourselves together, prayed for protection and provision and boarded the flight.
On arrival in Venice, we opted to walk to the city from the airport to save money. We passed a church on the way and attempted to talk to the warden. This was the first instance of many where we found a difficult language barrier. We smiled and simplified everything we said. We talked with our hands like some crazy cross-language game of charades. But alas, it was to no avail. The lady smiled politely but shrugged as if to say ‘Eh?’ We thanked her (even though she might not have understood it) and prayed briefly there before continuing on.
Although the lady at the ticket desk at the airport had sworn it was just an hour’s walk, after at least an hour of walking in the boiling hot sun with no real pavements, we found out we were still about two hours away from the city. We tried sticking our thumbs out in hope of catching a ride. As we passed yet another bus stop, we prayed again, asking for some kind of lift. A bus pulled in and we got on, willing to pay rather than walk. The bus driver waved us on. As we set off, I attempted to pay him but he just declared he spoke no English and drove on. Hallelujah!
When we got off at the city centre, it dawned on us that we were actually in an unknown European city with no plans of where to go. Slightly daunted, we walked on with no aim, just wonder. It’s a beautiful city. Ornate architecture, canals at every turn and miles and miles of gorgeous unfolding paved streets. I’m not sure how long we pottered for but eventually our hunger and anxiety to find somewhere to stay led us to the university. Jared conversed with a few American women who explained that there was an ensuing economics conference beginning there. We wandered through and found a shaded spot inside. Upon checking for wi-fi we found the elusive ‘eduroam’ system which we use on Uni of York campus. It’s humorous to think that I’d struggled for hours to connect in my room in York but somehow in the middle of Venice I found a clear connection.
We then spent a couple of hours in a nearby campus café and filled up our water bottles. Like the eager students we are, we scrambled on the internet to find any church connection we could. We came up with nil. There was a very exciting moment where I found a ‘Coast Life Church’ in Venice on Facebook. It looked like a great church. Passionate, family-focused and hopefully open to feeding and housing four British students desperate for somewhere to stay and something to eat. It soon became embarrassingly clear that this place was in Venice, Florida, USA and not Italy. As we began to get exasperated, we prayed. It dawned on us that we’d been too focussed on what our plan was and where we needed to go. We began to walk again. This time we asked God where He wanted us to go and for His plans to be made clear.
Our mood changed. We came upon a fascinating (and free) art museum which provided a much-needed rest. We entered a local church where a warden told us ’20 euros for two days in Venice is impossible’ but offered no help. Then we found a woman keeled over begging on the street. After praying for her, she accepted our offer to buy some food for her. By the time we’d returned with a toastie, she’d disappeared. I trustingly gave the food to a nearby street seller who swore she would be back soon. Giving away food hurt. It became clear that we were all stark-raving hungry. So we prayed. Everywhere in Venice is expensive. However, soon enough we came upon a supermarket where we purchased a good amount of bread, meat, cheese and breadsticks. We feasted in the shade by the canal on the edge of the bustling city centre.
Then, Andrew said he’d found a cheap-looking hotel a mile walk away. So, with whatever energy we had left, we walked. Coming upon the hotel; it was very central, it was very cheap and it was very appreciated. At 30 euros each a night it put us over budget, though I think we needed it. After a shower, each of us fell straight asleep in the cool room, exhausted and wiped out. We slept 14-hours straight.
We awoke half an hour before we had to leave. Gathering our stuff, we were graciously allowed to leave our bags at the hotel until the late afternoon. Bleary-eyed but rested, we had a small breakfast of coffee, a bit of meat and a bit of bread. After explaining a little of what we were doing to the lovely receptionist of the hostel, we headed across the courtyard to the Church of San Geremia. There was a supreme peace and joy in worshipping God and reflecting on his word there. Looking upon a painting of Jesus being presented to Simeon in the Temple I echoed the words of Luke “for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared for all peoples, a light for the revelation to the Gentiles and a glory to your people Israel.” After a worshipful half hour or so, we attempted to talk to a church warden. He misunderstood us and pointed us in the direction of the toilet.
When we tried to explain again, the warden whispered angrily “Piano!” to which I personally understood to mean the instrument.
‘I haven’t played in a while but I’ll give it a go’ I thought.
‘Piano’ is actually the Italian word for ‘quiet’ or ‘soft’ which makes much more sense. The language barrier yet again presented itself as a problem.
After praying a while longer, an elderly Italian man approached us. It was hard to understand him but it was clear he wanted us to stop praying and leave. So we did.
We continued prayer-walking. Praying inwardly and asking God to guide us at each junction we came upon. We came upon two more fascinating art museums and another church. Here, Andrew along with myself tried to explain our presence with Acts 16:5 “the churches were strengthened in the faith” and Matthew 28:19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”. The warden seemed nonplussed and resilient of using the Bible to communicate. She pointed us in the direction of two other churches and we left. We soon after found a Jehovah Witness mission where people were handing out Bible leaflets. They were cordial in conversation. Then, we walked more. Stopping only to buy ice-cream and have a moment of quiet; reflecting on what God was saying. We found another church open. Another great time of quiet reflection. The church warden here was happy for us to continue praying there but refused our offer of praying with him.
After wandering a little more, we prayed again for provision for food. God is so good. We found another supermarket immediately. After eating, we decided to collect our bags and go to the airport later to crash there for the night airside on the lounge chairs. Before embarking back, by paid bus, we rested in a beautiful spot and watched the boats go by whilst conversing in the evening warmth.
Upon reaching the airport, we went to the prayer room. This allowed for nice reflection, although we were all on the verge of sleep. A French Muslim man came and prayed for a while and left, graciously thanking us with a smile. We were blessed to have Andrew there to speak with him in French.
Security was closed and we were left to sleep in the airport along with a few others who had a morning flight. We found a place and tried to get as comfortable as possible on the hard stone floor. The ‘polizia’ came over at the sound of Andrew’s snoring. They checked our passports and boarding passes and we were allowed to stay there until morning. Although it wasn’t comfortable, it was probably one of the safest places to be as there was a 24-hr security desk across from where we were and locked doors as opposed to the darkened streets of Venice.
If I’m honest, the next morning was spent half-asleep in the airport lounge area once we got through security. We flew back and got the train, praying at different points, whist stomach-rumblingly hungry. It was an odd feeling returning to the cooler air on campus but I appreciated a shower and a long sleep!
The trip, on reflection, wasn’t what I expected. Perhaps in my optimistic mind’s eye I thought we’d find a great, welcoming church which would feed and house us comfortably. On that front, I was disappointed. However, along the way God provided all we needed. When we were hungry, we found cheap supermarkets and cool places by the canal. When we were shattered, we found a free bus, a cheap hotel and places to rest and reflect. When we were downbeat and hot, we found fascinating displays of art in gorgeous houses. We relied fully on God’s provision. We made space for God to lead us and space for Him to speak. Although two days is a very short amount of time, I believe God planted seeds through our prayers and interactions. We will probably never see the fruit, but I have faith in God’s plans and power to use the little we did for His glory.
It has changed my thinking. As I walk around York and my hometown Huddersfield, I’m struck by how little I used to pray around the places I live. After spending two days in constant prayer and constant seeking of God, I don’t see any reason to stop! I’m passionate to organise a few prayer-walks in York next year. And I’m equally as passionate to invite God into every journey I take – no matter how small – recognising him at work in every street and at every turning.
My advice to anyone considering Escape and Pray next year would be: Do it! But, focus on God for every step, every meal and every night’s sleep. Proverbs 3:5-6 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.” But don’t just wait for that. Get praying! Unveil your eyes to be led by God where you are and “whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).
Ben Reid is an English Language and Linguistics student at the Uni of York. He's passionate about people and passionate about God.