This article is part thee in a series of pieces about Thomas Helling and his walk across the USA bearing a giant cross over his shoulder. To read this first part of this series, go to A Cross America, to read part two, go to Cross Walk in Connecticut – Maine to Mexico – Part 2)
“I can’t tell you what God has got in store for you, but I can tell you what he has done for me. Here is what I was, and there is where I found the Lord, and six years I struggled after I found the Lord before I came to this thing. And here is where I am now: homeless, penniless, but happy, as happy and joyful as I have ever been in my life.” -Tom Helling on his Cross Walk
“The more little miracles I witness the more I believe in the big ones,” Tom spoke as we sat on the side of highway 1, a tick east of Mystic, Connecticut. Thomas Helling was wearing a t-shirt with a large star of David printed upon it’s front in bright blue that had, “Jesus loves you,” superimposed over it.
“Whether your Jewish, Buddhist, Black, White, Green, Jesus loves you,” Tom spoke as we rested.
But it was soon time to be going again. Tom then lifted his cross off of the ground and we made ready to begin our tramp towards the town of Mystic.
Suddenly, out of nowhere a large camera appeared. A young man with long hair and a skinny frame was hiding behind it. He introduced himself as an intern with the local newspaper, and said that he was out looking for subjects to shoot. He asked Tom if he would mind posing with his giant cross.
Tom then turned to me and asked if this would be alright — he did not want to allow anyone else to tread on my story. I appreciated the gesture and the respect that he paid towards me, but I could not make any journalistic claims upon Tom’s Cross Walk, so I fully gave the photo journalism intern free reign to “shoot” whatever he wished.
He began shooting. And kept shooting. I shot photos of him shooting. We began walking and he somehow managed to put himself under every step Tom took. He knelt in front of Tom, behind Tom, would run up ahead to shoot, shoot, shoot. Tom just walked with his giant cross. He was unfazed, and just kept talking about Jesus, God, and the wisdom he had acquire on the first 500 miles of his pedestrian journey from Maine to Mexico. I walked by Tom’s side talking, and the photo intern swarmed around like a cloud of gnats on a summer evening.
Tom managed to remain focused, and the words of wisdom that a person often acquires from walking long distances poured out of him. He also stopped and shared touches of wisdom with the people we passed in the streets as they approached us with questions about why Tom was walking through their town with a giant Jesus cross.
So Tom told them: “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.”
There, in the streets of Mystic, Thomas Helling spoke about God and Jesus, he said a prayer with a woman he had just met while holding her hand. The woman smiled and prayed. The lady soon departed with blessings for Tom, wished him well on his journey to Mexico, and we began walking again, ever getting deeper into the town of Mystic.
As we walked, Tom offered to let me get a feel for the cross he had traveled with by bus from Milwaukee to Bangor, and then carried to Connecticut over his shoulder. With a warning about its weight, Tom placed the cross upon my shoulder. My knees buckled slightly under the heaviness, and I let out an exclamation of surprise. Even though the cross was provisioned with a wheel at its base, its weight was still impressive. Tom laughed — he had carried the cross for 500 miles, it was time to watch someone else carry it.
I did carry it. Into the town of Mystic we walked. Cars honked, I maneuvered the rear wheel of the cross over curbs, pot holes, and ditches, I navigated the top of the cross around people, guardrails, and knew that if I lost my equilibrium for even a brief moment — if I tripped or stumbled — that I would be on my face, splayed upon the sidewalk of Mystic, pinned down by a 12 foot high, 60 pound cross.
It was not a sight that I would want to miss. I had the photography intern take a photo of me with my camera. After snapping off a shot, he wished us farewell and disappeared nearly as mysteriously as he appeared.
A few hundred meters down the road I handed the cross back over to Tom. We were coming into the town, and the traffic was getting busy. I no longer had confidence that I could maneuver it without accident. The last thing that I wanted to do was run someone down with a giant cross. Tom took it back with a satisfied laugh. I had just experienced a brief taste of the Cross Walk.
“Do you ever sing songs to yourself as you are walking?” I playfully asked Tom as we made a turn off of the main road.
He laughed and told me that he does, in fact, sing as he walks. He began singing the chorus of the “I will walk ten thousand miles” song, and added that he also finds himself chanting a Patsy Cline song about walking, as well as various church ballads.
We were walking towards a hotel that was recommended by a friend that Tom had made a couple of days ago. He said that he received information that it was run by a “good Christian.” The hotel was called the Harbor Inn, and we walked around to its entrance and asked a man in the yard if he knew where the owner was.
The owner soon appeared. He was an older man of sturdy build and had a solid face which seemed to show that he had learned a lot from his life’s experience. The manager was wearing working man’s clothes and seemed surprised that a man with a twelve foot high Jesus cross addressed him by name.
Tom told the hotel owner what he was doing — walking across the USA, and what I was doing — writing a story about him walking across the USA. The Good Christian seemed a little perplexed (perhaps skeptical), and said that his hotel was fully booked.
It is my impression that, based upon what Tom was previously told about this hotel owner, he perhaps thought that he may have been offered a place to stay for the night. The Good Christian apologized, and Tom and I continued down the road.
Tom explained that when he first started out on his journey he found that the people who he thought would help him out — the churches, the established Christian communities — were those who tended to give little support, and how it was the people he did not previous think would help — the common man, the unaffiliated Christians — who, “Jumped right on.”
“I haven’t had to go to anybody and ask for one thing, everybody has come to me and offered. That is God doing his thing,” Tom added as an explanation of how the common, ordinary person in the streets of America have been his biggest supporters.
I then asked him how the idea to walk across the USA with a giant cross over his shoulder came about. Tom laughed as he explained that his initial conception of the “Cross Walk” was actually a joke. He told me how years ago, before he had his spiritual breakthrough, he was drinking with a friend who was an aspiring musician, and had suggested to him that if he wanted to become famous all he had to do was walk across the country with a giant Jesus cross. This suggestion was just a humorous jest at the time it was spoken, but some morsel of this idea implanted itself somewhere deep inside of Tom.
After Tom rediscovered his faith seven years ago, the idea of walking across the country bearing a giant cross began to sprout into life. “There was always something keeping me from serving the lord,” Tom explained, and then added that it just became time to fully devote himself to his faith.
It was time to begin the Cross Walk.
“There was always something in the way, either business, money, relationship, doing stuff with the church, there was always an excuse. A year and a half ago I just decided that excuses were over, I am going to go do this. And I realized that there was always going to be an excuse, there was always going to be a reason not go and serve the Lord, and not to go do this.”
“How did you explain this to people?” I asked Tom as we walked, wondering what the reaction was of his friends back home in Tucson, “When people asked why, what did you say?”
“I just said, I don’t know, I just have to go.”
At this time, Tom was the owner of a sucessful construction/ remodling company. He built up this business for 17 years, and then gave it all away so that he could begin the Cross Walk.
“I didn’t want to hang on to stuff,” Tom explained, “I didn’t want to go sell it, because to me that wouldn’t be trusting God. I’ve ran through stuff so many times in my life that it just doesn’t matter. I’ve given it to drugs, I’ve given it to other people, I’ve thrown it away, lost it, done all that, surely I could give it away for God one time.”
And he did. Helling estimates that he gave away three to four thousand dollars worth of construction equipment and materials right along with his business. He added that he just gave it to his employees, who, in turn, promised to hang on to everything for him until his return. But Tom was adamant, he wanted to be free of all his material possessions, and he made it clear that the receivers of his gifts knew that they were now theirs to keep — that he would not return for any of it.
“Those things take you away from God. I am not saying that those things are bad. A lot of people can deal with it and still serve God. That is probably part of my make up that I have always been an “all or nothing” guy. When I got into drugs it was all or nothing, I was not going to pussyfoot around . . . and, obviously, I couldn’t pussyfoot around with God either. I had to be all in or all out . . . and I decided all in. Nothing else was going to work until I did.”
“Every time I fell down I got up stronger,” Tom spoke of his relapses into addiction. He then spoke of how he relapsed into drugs for the last time on January 2, 2004. But a year and a half ago he again began to feel himself slipping, and he knew he had to do something, had to focus on a mission with all of his being. He soon began preparations for the Cross Walk.
“The toughest, hardest, and most valuable thing that I have ever done in my life was take that first step in Bangor,” Tom admitted with a big smile. “As I’ve walked, the whole thing has grown for me. Its grown into a bigger walk of faith for me. It seems to inspire some people, at least to talk to each other, to stop and talk to me, some are inspired to give me money, some are inspired to take me into their homes, and some just want to talk and tell me about their situations.” Tom then quickly added, “Just because I am carrying this cross does not mean that I am anything special.”
I then mentioned to Tom how there was another guy walking north across the USA who began in Texas around the same time that he began walking in Maine.
“Wouldn’t it be neat if we crossed each other,” Tom exclaimed laughing, “Two men crash with the cross!”
We laughed at his proposed newspaper headline, but Tom quickly added, “That’s awesome, man.”
He fully supported the cross walk of another religious traveler, there was not a hint of competition in Tom’s eyes when he added, “It’s like Arthur Blessit, the guy who walked all over the planet. I’m not in competition with him. That would be ridiculous. I hope that I’m enhancing his message. Really, he kind of paved the way for me and others like him. I hope more and more people pick them up [crosses] and keep walking with them, because, as I’ve been walking some people know about Arthur Blessit, and a lot of people don’t. So that tells me that as far as he walked and as long as he walked he didn’t reach everybody, so there is still a lot more people who need to be reached, and there are a lot more people who need to be carrying crosses.”
Tom then spoke of Blessit, “He’s like the Wilt Chamberlin of guys that walk with the cross. Nobody is going to score that 100 points in a game. Who would want to try? We just want to be the best team of cross walkers we can be.”
“Do you think this is a good way to interact with people?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” Tom replied with complete conviction, “This cross is a beacon for those who are called and a shield against those that aren’t. Those that come to me, come for a reason . . . I think I’ve got a message. There is a growing number of Christians that believe the way I believe . . . that are not those hard line people that will attack other groups. But I think there’s a lot of people that still need to hear it: the only thing you need to do is love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, love your neighbor as yourself, and then the commission from Jesus to the disciples: go spread the good news, and He is the good news.”
Tom and I were now back on the main street of Mystic and the giant cross was commanding the attention of nearly everyone in the streets. People honked their horns when they passed by us, some people yelled or wave, most people just stared at us with frying pan eyes wide open.
I then asked Tom if he had experienced many problems along the first 500 miles of his walk.
“A couple,” he admitted, “Nothing serious, nothing like I was involved with before. My biggest problem is trying to let stuff roll off my back that people yell. A lot of people yell ‘Jesus didn’t have a f’cking wheel!’ And its hard for me not to just yell ‘Well, I’m not Jesus!’ But I know that I shouldn’t respond to that stuff, because they don’t understand, and anything that I say would probably just serve to antagonize them. In my old days I would have called myself a coward,” Helling then added with a smile.
“What has been the most surprising thing in your journey?” I asked.
“That I’m still walking,” Tom replied with a laugh. “Seriously now, you are talking about a guy who was probably fifty pounds overweight, who hasn’t done anything like this in a number of years. Now I have issues with my ankles, my toes, my shoulders, my elbow, I have back problems, and somehow I’m still walking, somehow I’m still going, and the pain is never too much. When its time to walk, I’m ready to walk. When its time to rest, I’m certainly ready to rest.”
“When I first started out it was painful,” Tom explained, “I didn’t train for this. A friend of mine said, ‘Why don’t you go out walking to train?’ I said, ‘What’s the difference?'”
But, three months and 500 miles into his trans-continental walk, Tom has found his stride. I even had difficulty keep up with him as we walked through Mystic, and I did not even have an 60 pound cross over my shoulder. “I don’t think I will ever get on a bus again,” Helling laughed, “Especially now that I know I can just walk.”
The town of Mystic, Connecticut looked at Tom in wonder as we walked through its main street. An old drawbridge in the center of town was drawn up when we arrived to it. We walked over to a little park with benches and began eating the lunch that was donated to the Cross Walk earlier in the day.
A crowd of people soon enveloped us. People came from everywhere to talk to the man with the giant cross. Tom shook all of their hands, talked about God and Jesus and his walk across the country, posed for photos, and prayed with them in the streets. I watched as crowds of people filtered passed us, spoke a few words to Tom, signed his cross, and then held his hand and prayed. It was a side of America that I had not previously experienced. Before watching Tom walk through a small city on the southern fringes of New England, I would not have thought it possible for groups of modern Americans to hold hands with strangers in the streets of their hometown and pray out in the open, unbashfully, unafraid of ridicule.
I watched with eyes wide open, for I knew I was observing a side of my country that does not often reveal itself. Some of the people who prayed with Tom were Born Again “church people,” but most of them were just ordinary, everyday people who were neither religious zealots nor proselytizers of any sort — most were not ever regular church goers. They were just common people who, for a few moments in Tom’s presence, found an avenue to bring their spiritual beliefs come out in public light.
Soon enough the draw bridge was lowered, and Tom and I continued our walk through Mystic. It was late summer and warm, the streets were full of people. Everyone had a reaction when they saw Tom and his giant cross. Once outside of town again,Tom and I began talking.
I asked Tom about how he felt towards the politically active religious right in America. He called them “snakes and vipers.”
“I don’t believe that it is for a Christian group or a morality group to attack another group,” he spoke, “That’s not how its done, that doesn’t get anything done, all that does is flairs up hostilities towards each other . . . If you go one on one to a friend, that’s where something gets done . . . you are not going to push anybody, politically pound anybody, or go to anybody or harass anybody into being like you. The only thing that is going to work is attraction.”
Tom then continued, “Being a Christian, I should spread the news of love and understanding first. It wouldn’t be me telling you that you shouldn’t sin, it is what it says in the Bible, its what Jesus said. So if I would ever tell you that having sex out of marriage is wrong, its not because it came from me, it’s a teaching in the Bible . . . Does that mean you’re going to hell? No, because it also says in the Bible that no good deeds get you into Heaven and no evil deeds keep you out, so why would you judge anybody else’s sin. It does no good.”
Tom continued, “[The Bible] doesn’t say attack those who don’t live the same way as you do, or confront those that are sinning and make them feel like crap. It says love them. Anybody can love their friend, that’s easy, even pagans do that. God said love your enemy, that’s not so easy.””
I then asked Tom about the different ways that people approached him in various areas — how the culture and the people change as he walked through the rural and urban areas of New England.
Tom explained, “As I was walking through Roxbury and Jamaica Plains. I don’t know what you want to call it, it was a neighborhood, it was a hood. It was not a very affluent place, a lot of mixed races, a lot of slum type areas, and a lot rougher. But there were some really nice people who came up to me and gave me money. You would think the affluent, well off middle class people in Boston might have been willing to help, and they weren’t, and here were these people out here who didn’t have much [in the slums], and they were the ones who were giving. Those were the ones who were praying with me on the side of the street.”
“You just never know where God’s at, and who he’s going to come through, who he’s going to send to you,” Tom added, “The good things that are happening are happening through God, it’s not through me . . . I don’t have to talk to anybody, I don’t have to knock on any doors, I don’t have to preach to anybody for God to do his work.”
Just then we heard a group of teenage boys come running up from behind us. Tom pulled his cross off the sidewalk to let the boys pass. But they stopped.
“Oh, you are coming to talk with me,” Tom said, sounding a little surprised.
Reeled in by the giant cross beacon, the group of six or seven teenage boys ran down the street, or rode their bicycles or skateboards, after Tom to find out what he was doing. Tom asked them if they believed in God and Jesus. The boys, who had to have been around 13 years old, shyly looked at each other before, one after the other, they admitted that they did.
Tom shared some wise words with them before asking them if they would like to say a prayer. The boys did. There, on the sidewalk, the group of teenagers all joined hands and followed in a prayer led by Tom. When the prayer was finished, the boys all lined up to sign the cross. They all smiled as they waved goodbye.
“People think this [the Cross Walk] is an extreme thing,” Tom spoke after we began walking again, “but I was always an extreme person. Compared to how I lived, this ain’t extreme . . . I use to be a bouncer and a body guard, I use to beat people up for a living. I use to smuggle drugs . . . I use to beat people up in bars for a living. I wasn’t a nice guy. But God changed that, he took that hard hearted, mean, nasty guy who would fight you just because you looked at me wrong and turned me into a guy . . . who would walk with a cross.”
Tom began rearing a family as a young man in Iowa. He had four boys by the time he was in his mid-twenties, but he soon found himself entangled in a world of drugs, alcohol, and trouble. He abandoned his family by the time his oldest boy was 10 years old, and moved to Tucson, Arizona. He told me that this was the worst decision he ever made.
“I broke the chains with us basically,” Tom explained, “and there were a lot of hard feelings for a long time.”
I asked Tom if he has been talking to his sons as he walks across the USA. He answered that he had with a big smile, telling me that his boys sometimes send him emails congratulating him on his progress, and that they sometimes talk on the phone. As Thomas Helling walks across the USA talking with people about Jesus and God, he also seems to be healing the wounds he caused in his past — both his own wounds and those in others.
I walked behind Tom on the side of US route 1. He planned to walk this same road all the way down to the south of the country. As he walked he would often stoop down with the cross still over his shoulder to remove trash and sticks laying on the road. Tom would also pick up any spare change that he walked by, and it seemed as if our entire route out of Mystic was lined with nickles and dimes. Each time Tom would reach down and pick up a coin he would say, “Thank you, God.”
We soon took a break at a suburban gas station. Tom and I went inside to buy some drinks. I think Tom bought a coke and he got me a root beer. The man behind the gas station counter was a dark skinned and middle aged. He noticed the large cross that Tom had laid in front of one of his store windows, and mentioned to us that he was a Muslim. He then asked what we were doing with the cross.
Tom then explained that he was walking from Maine to Mexico talking about Jesus. The Muslim man gave us some free bananas. “Religion is humanity,” the Muslim added with a smile as we took received his gift. Tom and I smiled.
Tom and I then sat outside of the Muslim’s gas station, drank our beverages, and continued talking. We spoke of our respective histories and I told him a little about my life and travels. I mentioned that I had a little cabin way off in the woods of Maine that I could live in, but how I left it vacant to continue traveling.
“What I would really like to have is a cabin in the woods in the middle of nowhere,” Tom spoke as he told me about the book he was writing about his life and journey across the USA. “I think that somewhere He is going to have a ministry for me to attend to,” Tom added as he told me how he would like to someday have a stable pastoral type job where he would have a congregation and a church. There was a far off look in Helling’s eyes as he envisioned himself living a simple life in a cabin with only a small church to attend to.
“You can study the Bible, you can come up with the deepest meanings in theology of all this and that,” Tom continued, “but it comes down to these three little things: love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, love your neighbor as yourself, and spread the news. That’s it.”
I asked Tom what he was going to do after he finished his walk. He answered simply, “Swing to Nogales, then I will see what God wants me to do after that.” Thomas Helling then added that he may just keep going.
We then stood up and walked a little farther down the road. The day was coming to a close, the sun was going down. I walked next to Tom Helling, I walked next to his giant cross, I thought of all that I had experienced that day — what I saw, the people I met. I thought of my pregnant wife who was waiting for me to come back to her. I looked into the setting sun, stopped walking, and wished Tom farewell.
“We will meet again,” I spoke as we shook hands.
Tom smiled big. He had no place to sleep that night, no plan for finding shelter, but he knew that he would be alright. Tom walked on into the night, step by step getting a little closer to Mexico.
I stood and watched him go.
Read more of the Cross Walk series on Vagabond Journey
- A Cross America – Starting out in Maine – part 1
- Cross Walk in Connecticut – Maine to Mexico – part 2
- Travelogue entry – In search of man with giant cross
- Travelogue entry – In search of man with giant cross update
- Travelogue entry- Cross walk search concluded sucessful
Read Tom Helling’s Cross Walk website at From Maine to Mexico, where you can get current updates of the Cross Walk or make a donation.