The Walk to Emmaus is an adaptation of the Roman Catholic Cursillo (pronounced cur-SEE-o) Movement, which originated in Spain in 1949. Cursillo de Cristianidad means "little course in Christianity." The original Cursillo leaders designed the program to empower persons to transform their living and working environments into Christian environments. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Episcopalians and Lutherans, along with several nondenominational groups, such as Tres Dias, began to offer Cursillo. In 1978, The Upper Room of the General Board of Discipleship adapted the program for a primarily Protestant audience and began to offer it under the name The Upper Room Cursillo. In 1981, The Upper Room made further adaptations and changed the name of the program to The Upper Room Walk to Emmaus. In 1984, The Upper Room developed a youth expression of Emmaus called Chrysalis.
As presented by Robert R. Wood at the 20th Anniversary Gathering of Emmaus - Peoria, Illinois, April, 1997.
“The secret is simply this. Christ in you. Yes, Christ in you bringing all the hope of God’s glory.” -Colossians 1:27
With these words, Paul encouraged those early Christians at Colossae to be Christ in the world. He told them that being a Christian had something to do with finding a way to put Christ in you. Being a Christian was being Christ to a neighbor, being Christ in your family, and being Christ in the world.
In 1973, Bishop Lance Webb appointed me to serve as an Associate Minister at First United Methodist Church in Peoria. From the very first moment, I discovered a people who were learning how to be Christ in the world. There was something different about their character - more enthusiastic about their faith, more intentional about their Walk with Christ, more expressive of their compassion and love for their neighbors.
Within the first month of my being at First Church, Travis Dutton approached me and said I had to go to this thing called Cursillo. None of us Protestants knew exactly how to pronounce it, much less understand it. But we knew the effect it was having on thousands of lives in the Peoria Area. It was setting a prairie fire that was strangely warming hearts and inspiring Christians to become more expressive of their faith.
First Church was a busy place. Three ministers had left when I came in July, 1973. In November, the Senior Minister announced he was leaving in January. In March, Ira Gallaway came as the Senior Minister. By Spring we had added another Associate and I found time to attend my Cursillo in July of 1974. It was a wonderful experience. I saw many hearts strangely warmed. I discovered a universal (catholic) and practical theology, I experienced a truly loving (agape) community. I was invited to participate in a follow-up program called reunion groups, akin to my own Wesleyan tradition of class societies. I was a part of an Ecumenical Expression that was real and had results. For the next several years I participated in the Peoria Cursillo Movement to the fullest, helping Christians of every expression find renewal and a deepening of their spiritual nature.
In 1976, First Church invited Dr. Maxie Dunnam, then World Editor of The Upper Room to conduct a workshop entitled “An Adventure in Living Prayer” In our desire to have all our people participate in the workshop and not be concerned with housekeeping things like serving meals, we called on the Peoria Cursillo Community to act as our servants for the weekend. During the first meal, Maxie asked: “Who is that fellow wearing the collar?” I responded, “He’s a Roman Catholic priest; he has come to help serve our meals this weekend.” During the second meal, Maxie asked “Now is this a different bunch of folk serving the meals?” I responded, “These are Cursillistas from the Peoria Cursillo Community who wanted to help us out this weekend. They are Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Church of Christ, Christians of every stripe. They all have participated in a thing called Cursillo and have learned how to be servants.
That week, back in Nashville, Maxie was sharing with a staff member named Danny Morris that he had experienced a strange phenomenon in Peoria, people acting like servants with smiles on their faces. Maxie asked, “Danny, have you ever heard of this thing called Cursillo?” Danny answered, “You know this weekend I was in my former church in Hialeah, Florida, and one of my members who used to spend weekends on his boat has found religion. Ernie Englemann has sold his boat and started working in the church. He attended a Lutheran Cursillo and it has changed his life.” Maxie and Danny agreed that they needed to explore this thing further. All the while Maxie was walking the halls of The Upper Room saying: “The secret is simply this. Christ in you. Yes, Christ in you bringing all the hope of God’s glory.” There was a sincere desire on the part of The Upper Room to shape the concept of spiritual formation for the United Methodist Church. It was in this environment that the desire to make the Cursillo experience available for a broader Protestant participation took root. Finally, in the fall of 1976, The Upper Room asked the Peoria Cursillo Community to model a Protestant Ecumenical weekend with me as Spiritual Director. Those two weekends were Cursillo #108 held on April 21-24 and #110 held on May 19-22 at the St. Augustine Cursillo Center in 1977. The Candlelight and the Closing were held at First Church so that we could have an open Communion Service during those events. Otherwise, those weekends looked just like any other Cursillo weekend presented by the Peoria Cursillo Community.
In June, Maxie called me and asked how long it would take us to have an Upper Room Lay Directors’ Manual ready. He had just come back from the Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, where he was the keynote speaker. There they had voted on the Conference floor to hold a Cursillo in August of that year. Thus launched the Upper Room Cursillo Movement. By January of 1978 I was in place as Director of Spiritual Formation for The Upper Room. That first year I participated in 26 weekends, some Episcopal, some Lutheran, some Catholic, many Protestant.
We began immediately working with Jerry Hughes, National Director of the Cursillo Movement in the U.S.A. It was our good fortune to have the National Spiritual Director, Father Charles Giacosa, for the Catholic Movement living in Nashville. I was asked to take part in the Nashville leadership school, to group with local Cursillistas, and to become more familiar with the total program. Soon we had planned our first weekend in Nashville. It was decided that the rollo team would come from Peoria and the support team and table leaders would come from the local Nashville community. These first weekends were held in the Belmont United Methodist Church on the south side of Nashville. The second weekends were held at the Catholic Social Services Center and then eventually moved to Hermitage United Methodist Church east of Nashville.
It became increasingly evident that the National Office of the Cursillo Movement was not happy with our ecumenical stance. They were most willing to have us use their materials if we were a United Methodist Cursillo, serving only United Methodists on the weekends. They did not feel it was in our best interest or the interest of the Cursillo to have denominations sharing the same weekend. Our experience in the ecumenical setting was one of understanding, appreciation, and strengthening of a broader and healthier theology. Best of all was a practical theology built on Servanthood and Love.
Finally, in March of 1981 the decision was made to give up the name of Cursillo and keep the ecumenical participation. We were prohibited from using any of the copyrighted materials of the Cursillo and threatened with a lawsuit. Thus, we decided to change the name to Walk to Emmaus. It was a meeting of Bishop Edsel Ammons, President of the General Board of Discipleship (GBOD), Ezra Earl Jones, General Secretary of the GBOD, Maxie Dunnam, World Editor of The Upper Room, and Danny Morris, Program Director of The Upper Room. “What image do you have for this “Walk To Emmaus” name?” Bishop Ammons asked. “Luke 24:13-35 tells the story of what happens: The disciples wanted to be set free; and Jesus explained the scriptures. The disciples had their hearts strangely warmed and their eyes opened. Following the experience they ran all the way back to Jerusalem to tell of their experience. This is what happens on a Cursillo/Emmaus weekend.” It was there in the Nashville Airport that the name “Walk to Emmaus” was born. God’s timing was confirmed when the lectionary for Sunday’s gospel reading was Luke 24:13-35. Some of my Catholic friends in Nashville said that when the scripture was read during Sunday morning mass, they found tears rolling down their check with both celebration and sadness that such a step had to be taken. Both the celebration and the sadness soon gave way to hard work. The talk outlines had to be written, a new emphasis on Holy Communion had to be defined, and a distinctive character of the Walk to Emmaus had to be forged. The challenge was great.
In 1983 we took the Walk to Emmaus to Australia and truly became a worldwide movement. And the rhythm has continued. The experience has become infectious and the seed that was planted here in Peoria in 1977 has continued to grow. Now after more than 500,000 Pilgrims in countries as diverse as Australia and South Africa, as distant as Germany and Hong Kong, as complex as India, the spirit of God finds ways of stirring faith and strengthening the witness of Christian love.
I have been reading Joseph Cardinal Bernadine’s book The Gift of Peace for my early morning reading. He was talking about his meditation on the mystery of the cross as he was facing his own death. His thoughts stirred in me these thoughts, and I would like to close with this. The mystery of the Messiah is the ability to see that all things work for our good, and that we are not alone! There is great hope in the God who chose to be human: Jesus taking our plight, explaining to the disciples that the work of grace was not finished with his life, but still at work in the simplest things: hunger and food, thirst and drink, loneliness and visiting, nakedness and clothing. God still needs the human form to meet the human need. God still needs disciples to share mercy and grace. God still asks you to make the sacrifice. God still asks you to take up the cross and follow, dying to self and living for others. The secret is simply this, Christ in you! De Colores!
The Reverend Robert R. Wood served in various churches in California, Connecticut, and northern Illinois before joining the staff of First United Methodist Church, Peoria, Illinois in 1973 with responsibilities for Evangelism and Education. In this capacity he learned of the local Catholic Cursillo program and in 1977 was instrumental in developing the Protestant Upper Room Cursillo, which later became Walk to Emmaus. Rev. Wood is now pastor of Evangelical United Methodist Church in Washington, IL.