Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” -Matthew 9:6
Thomas Helling grunted a little as he picked the heavy 10 foot high wooden cross up from the side of the highway and hoisted it to his shoulder. Jesus’ instruction to his disciples was “Walk on,” and two millennium later, this Iowa native has taken this directive literally: he is walking from Bangor, Maine to Nogales, Mexico with an 60 pound wooden cross over his shoulder.
Helling’s message is simple: “God loves you,” and when people ask him why he is going through with such an arduous feat, he answers with a matter of fact turn of logic: “I am doing this to remind people about Jesus. If even a non-believer sees this cross, he knows what it means, and it may plant a little seed deep down inside of him.”
Tom Helling’s story is inspiring: a substance abuser of 20 years has a spiritual breakthrough in the parking lot of a Tucson, Arizona biker bar, and, as he puts it, “went from a Christian hatter to a believer in a moment.”
Seven years later, Helling finds himself walking across the USA, sharing his story and his message as well as listening to the stories of the people he meets along the way. He began this trans-continental walk, aptly named the “Cross Walk,” in the beginning of June 2009, and has already walked through the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. On the first full day of this journey I met up with him on highway 1A just outside of Bangor, Maine.
I was driving by him on my way to the coast, and suddenly ground my brake into the floorboard as his giant cross came into view.
What is that guy doing?
I hastily pulled my Subaru over to the side of the road, gathered up my notepad and a camera, and jumped out to interview him. I was initially after a quick piece that I could turn around and sell to a local paper, but I ended up making a friend and being invited into a much, much larger story.
Tom told me his story and I scribbled vehemently in my little notebook and snapped off photos with my camera. Tom laughed big and smiled bigger — he was out on his first full day of a walk that would take him across America. I watched as a man was taking the first steps of a trans-continental journey. I observed the beginnings of a walk of faith through a nation seemingly on the brink of spiritual dispassion.
“Taking that first step was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Tom would later tell me.
As I continued writing and working in Maine, thoughts of Helling and his Cross Walk hit me hard. The man’s words and countenance stuck in my head. I could not write the shitty 300 word newspaper article about him that I planned. No, the $100 payment would not be worth this story. Instead, the piece I wrote ended up in the place that I store all of the articles that I write which I feel are too good for the presses: On Backpack Journalism, the featured stories section of my personal website, Vagabondjourney.com. Publishing the Cross Walk article here meant that I would not receive much money at all from it, but it also meant that I could write it with integrity and it would be available in its rawest form for anyone with interest and internet access to read — for free. The cost of pride is sometimes worth more than any amount of money.
For the next three weeks in Maine after I met up with Helling it rained nearly every single day. I shivered as I thought of Tom outside walking, and good sense decreed that he should have had given up his journey by now.
But I was wrong.
Helling walked through the storm, camped out through the cold, and two months later I found myself walking by his side down route 1 on a sunny summer day in Connecticut.
“God has been watching over me,” Tom spoke joyously as I greeted him on the side of the highway. I had been searching for Tom for the past two days, and I had finally tracked him down a couple miles east of Mystic, Connecticut.
We shook each other’s hands and patted each other on the back. It had been nearly 60 days since the last time we met: for 60 days and nights Tom had been walking through rain storms, wind, hail, heat, and sun with no contingency plan other than a stout belief that God would take care of him every step of the way.
I was curious to find out how the long road across New England had treated Helling, how he had fared on the first 500 miles of his journey through the USA. As I knew that Helling started out his travels with only a $20 bill to his name, I was curious to discover where he had been sleeping, what he had been eating, how he had survived. From the smile that covered his sun burnt face as he greeted me and the bright glint in his eyes, I knew right then that the Open Road had treated Thomas Helling very well.
We then walked across the highway together to a gas station so that Tom could pick up something to drink and catch me up on his journey. As we walked into the parking lot of the gas station, a car honk its horn and swerved over to the side of the highway. The car’s occupant jumped out and ran over to Tom and handed him a plastic grocery bag full of food. This man was obviously drawn in by the 10′ cross: Thomas Helling’s beacon.
After handing the bag of food over to Helling, the giver, who was probably in his mid forties, began asking basic questions to the man with the giant cross.
What are you doing?
Helling told the man his tale: the story of a hard drinking, cold hearted man who once ran drugs and beat people up for a living. He told him how he came to Jesus in a rash moment of clarity, and how this provoked him to clean up his life and eventually walk the long road across the USA, sharing the message that “God loves you” to anyone who wishes to listen, and lending an open ear to those who wish to share their stories or problems.
The generous giver’s eyes were open wide as Helling told him a little about his pedestrian journey down from Maine with his giant cross, a small bag, and a strong faith in God as his only provisions. The giver’s wallet was soon out of his pocket and in the open, a handful of bills were thrust towards Helling.
“Do you accept donations?” The man asked while pressing more than $50 into Helling’s palm.
“If the good lord puts it into your hands, I will receive it,” was Helling’s response.
The man passed this money over to Tom, and then, perhaps feeling a touch guilty that he kept some cash back, took out his wallet and passed over the rest of its contents.
“I am a Christian, but not as much as you,” the man stated sheepishly as Helling held his hand in the gas station parking lot and said a little prayer with him.
As we walked away from the gas station Tom turned to me and said, “I am glad that God did that for your sake.”
I had to admit that what I had just witnessed was touching. The giver was so inspired, enlightened perhaps, by his five minute conversation with Thomas Helling that the money in his wallet, his well stocked lunch, and every other amenity in his possession all of a sudden became worthless. The man gave over all he had of value to the religious wanderer in exchange for a few words of wisdom, and seemed very pleased with the transaction.
The knowledge that Helling shared — the words of Jesus — was worth more to this man than his last dollar bill and his last grain of food. He passed it all on to Helling so that he could continue his journey and keep sharing this message across the USA.
Hearing the words of spiritual wisdom spoken with blunt and honest sincerity is perhaps priceless. I could see it in the giver’s eyes that he was shown something that no church, preacher, or religious impostor could have shown him. He was shown a simple, basic path to God that paralleled the avenues and byways of everyday living. Helling said a prayer with this man in the parking lot of a gas station in modern America as matter of factly and spontaneously as ordering an oil change. In this moment, the spiritual and secular worlds lost their barriers and became the conjoined. It was my impression that part of the message that Tom was sharing was that churches do not have walls — he was spreading the good news.
As we were leaving the gas station, Helling turned around and put some coins into a vending machine that stood in the parking lot. The machine jammed, Helling gave it a good whack with one of his large fists, and vastly more change than he put into it fell out through the change slot. He took it happily. We laughed. Tom said “Thank you, God.”
Even the vending machines were now donating to the Cross Walk.
“You are a very auspicious man, Tom,” I spoke as we walked away from the gas station.
“Auspicious? What does that mean?” Tom asked with a laugh.
“Well, it means sort of like . . . spiritually lucky.”
“Humf,” Tom replied, “I have been called a lot of things in my life, but auspicious is not one of them.”
We laughed about this for a moment and then Tom continued, “But I tell you, Wade, it’s not luck, it’s God.”
So this was how Helling had traveled. The people that Tom inspired on his journey would often pass on little tokens of their appreciation to him so that he could continue his walk of faith. Like this, Helling had walked from Maine to Connecticut.
Tom and I then found some shade on a little knoll under a large oak tree on the side of the highway and sat down to rest and talk. The noon day sun was hot, and he had been walking all morning, and I had been searching for him for two days. We both were a little weary.
“I had it in my head that I would be eating roadkill and drinking out of puddles,” Helling said with a hearty though far off laugh, “I had no idea people were going to take care of me so well.”
And people had taken care of him very well. The day that I met up with Helling outside of Bangor was the last time he had to sleep outside without any shelter.
“It’s been 50 days. So 48 out of 50 days, 96% of the time, God has seen to put me up in a motel or in a house or structure of some kind with somebody. I always have stuff to eat. The $20 I had when I started has been long gone after the second day, but somehow I always have money in my pocket — sometimes more, sometimes less.”
People all along Tom’s path have helped him in his mission and have contributed to his journey by providing him with money, shelter, or food all on their own volition. Tom never asks for money, nor does he actively solicit donations. As he told the man who had just provided him with money and food in the gas station parking lot, “If the good lord puts it into your hands, I will receive it.”
Tom was also quick to admit that times where he has received large number of donations have often been indicative of rough roads ahead. “Whenever I start getting lots of donations, I know that something’s up,” he said with a laugh. He went on to explain that these donations are God’s way of preparing him for rough times, and then cited multiple times when he received large donations right before walking into a hard bout of travel where he direly needed them.
He then told me a story about how he was down and out in Belfast, Maine. He had walked all day long, had no money, and night was staring him in the face. Tom Helling then sat down upon a rock and prayed.
“I said aloud “God, I need some help, I know you’re on it, but I’m starting to get a little worried. I don’t know where to go, I don’t know where I am, I don’t know if I can camp . . . If you want me to camp out, I’m fine with that, just please make it evident. Let me know, hit me on the head with a 2X4. But it is your will, and I am going to wait here until you take care of it.”
Within five minutes somebody pulled up in a car. The next thing you know, Tom had a place to stay. The guy picked him up out if his confusion and brought him home.
“For the next three days it rained and poured and I had a place to stay, for free. I have been meeting some really good friends and some really good people that I intend to be friends with for the rest of my life,” Tom told me.
Another time when Tom was confused on the side of the road with nowhere to go and moneyless, a couple pulled up in a pickup truck and donated $200 cash to help him on his walk across the USA. “I use to deal drugs, so I knew how much money was there,” Tom told me. After receiving such a large contribution, Tom hugged his supporters and they all began to cry.
“Wade,” Tom spoke with urgency, “less than 30 seconds after I started feeling down and scared He sent somebody like that, and there hadn’t been anybody like that all day, and I walked maybe 10 hours, nothing. Bam! as soon as I got weary.”
Helling told me that God was watching out for him, and, from what I saw and heard already, I had to believe him.
Tom continued, “Whatever is God’s will will be done . . . It wasn’t for Jesus to come down and cure everybody on the planet and to cure everybody of addiction. God could do that in a heartbeat if he wanted to, but he doesn’t, because he wants us to learn, he wants us to grow . . . For a long time I was trying to clean up my own act, and make sure that I was righteous so that I could go and serve God, but I realized, that is not what he wants, man, he doesn’t want you to go clean yourself up, he wants you to come serve him now, and let him clean you up. I realized some stuff like that along my trip, that the whole time over the last seven years since I found the Lord that I was trying to get righteous and do the right thing, but it was me trying to do it, instead of letting Him come in and work on me, and change me the way He wanted me to change.”
“Thank God I finally got here,” Helling added, “to the point where I can be clay in his hands, and he can do what he wants with me.”
We continued to talk about the logistics of his journey. How he was able to walk out these past 500 miles without having much previous travel experience under his belt, without many supplies, and without even having a starter fund of money to work with.
“You know, Wade, there is about 49% of the time where I don’t know what I am doing, and another 49% of the time where I’m confused, and there is only about 1 and a half to two percent of the time where I know what I am doing and I’m making the right moves. The rest of that time is guided by God, and I am trying to let him expand that. For now, at my best, it is about all that I can manage: about maybe 2% correct. The rest of it is all mistakes, or a screw up, or a miscommunication.”
“But as I stand back and let God work in front of me and behind me and with me,” Tom continued, “then the gap there is widening, that percentage of what I understand and how I manage life is widening.”
This is the second part of a series of articles on Tom Helling’s Cross Walk. The third part should be published at Cross Walk part three.
More about Tom Helling’s Cross Walk across the USA can be found at the following pages
- A Cross America – Spiritually intoxicated ex-addict walks from Maine to Mexico – About my first meeting with Tom in Maine.
- Cross Walk part three
- From Maine to Mexico – Tom’s website where you can get the story as it is unfolding and make donations to his journey.