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The man who took up his cross and walked

by
24 June 2009

Arthur Blessitt has walked 38,000 miles in 38 years — carrying a large cross. Ed Beavan spoke to him

Across the desert: an early trip to Egypt. Arthur Blessitt experimented with crosses, and found that, without a wheel, the cross would wear away at the rate of an inch a day

Across the desert: an early trip to Egypt. Arthur Blessitt experimented with crosses, and found that, without a wheel, the cross would wear away at th...

ARTHUR BLESSITT is recovering from a serious health scare when I talk to him on the telephone. Just four days before the interview, he had had emergency heart surgery —the main artery to his heart was blocked, he says. He reassures me, though, that he is “still here”. His son Joshua is monitoring the length of our call to make sure he stays that way.

For many, such a close brush with death would be a particularly shocking experience. But for the 68-year-old American from Greenville, Mississippi, heart trouble pales into insignificance compared with some of the scrapes he has faced during his 38-year trek around the world with a giant wooden cross on his shoulder.

He has been arrested or im­prisoned 24 times, stoned, assaulted, caught up in war zones and in the midst of military coups, and even faced a guerrilla firing squad in Nicaragua.

He has been run over three times, had the cross stolen, and dropped it in the sea. He has even scaled mountains with it, such as Mount Fuji in Japan.

But then, Mr Blessitt and his 12-feet-long cross have come a long way together. This father of seven has walked 38,102 miles in 315 nations: he has been to every country in the world, as well as every island group.

He has met numerous world leaders, among them Yasser Arafat in Beirut, and Pope John Paul II. He has met several presidents of the United States, and even stood as a candidate in the 1976 US presiden­tial election.

He walked through East Germany as Communism was collapsing; traipsed through jungles in South America, where he supped on rat soup; braved freezing temperatures in Antarctica; and endured the heat of the desert in the Middle East.

His epic journey is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as “the world’s longest walk”, and it seems fair to start with the question just why he chose to follow Jesus’s injunc­tion to take up his cross quite so literally.

“It all started when I was minis­tering on Sunset Strip in Hollywood in California back in the ’60s, in a coffee house called His Place. We put the cross up on the wall, and I saw the impact it had on people coming in who were high on drugs, when they saw the big rugged wooden cross on the wall.

“I would periodically carry it down Sunset Boulevard maybe 100 or 200 metres. Then, in 1969, I was praying one day, and I felt the call of Jesus to take the cross and carry it across America.

“I left at Christmas 1969, and walked across America. Once out on the road, that really became my life. It became what I knew was my heart: Jesus and people.

“Then I came to England for the Festival of Light, and I spoke at that. I walked through Britain, and then I went across Europe and Africa, and continued mission after mission in North and South America.”

By 1998, Mr Blessitt had visited every country in the world. The last two, to complete the set, were Iraq and North Korea, where he was accom­panied by his second wife, Denise, whom he married in 1990. She is British.

His next quest was to visit every island group in the world, a feat he completed in June last year, when he arrived in Zanzibar.

Over the years he has used three different crosses; two weighing 45 pounds, one a hefty 70 pounds. The cross has a wheel on one end to ease the burden.

IT HAS not been 40 continuous years on the road. In the first ten or 15 years, the trips lasted any­thing from three to six months, some even a year at a time, as he chalked up as many countries as he could before re­turning home to spend time with his family.

In more recent years, however, the trips have become shorter, with Mr Blessitt on the road for a couple of months at the most. “I walked more in the early years: in the latter years there were more air miles.”

Despite persecution and opposi­tion, he says that the tough times have been outweighed by the many high points.

“When I was walking across West Africa and word spread from village to village, there were hun­dreds and thousands of people waiting for me. I got to preach and speak at churches along the way.

“But the single most important experience has been the unchanging presence of Jesus. I knew he was with me always, whether it was in the middle of the night or with mosquitoes all over you.

“There have been some huge triumphs and highlights; going into the Yankees Stadium in New York, praying with people all over the world. Sometimes, the response in the Muslim world has been won­derful, such as in Iraq when I took the cross to Babylon.

“There have been some huge triumphs and highlights; going into the Yankees Stadium in New York, praying with people all over the world. Sometimes, the response in the Muslim world has been won­derful, such as in Iraq when I took the cross to Babylon.

“But the most awesome experi­ence of all has been knowing the constant presence of Jesus, knowing he is with you every step.”

He says he was largely welcomed by churches on his walks, “if they knew what I was doing”, although some had doubts. “When you’re totally unknown, there’s a lot of sceptism, and if you need to leave the cross at a church, ‘park it’, peo­ple would ask: ‘What denomina­tion are you?’

“There was often a real inter­roga­tion, which you never found if you wanted to leave it at a bar or night­club.”

As for the low points, Mr Blessitt explains that he came close to death on a number of occasions. “I was arrested and detained in Burundi when there was a military coup, and was questioned for hours.

“In Nicaragua, I was taken out to be shot by a firing squad. They pointed their guns at me, but I went to get my Bible and they didn’t shoot.

“In Northern Ireland, in 1971, British troops took me in for ques­tioning, as if they thought I had a bomb in the cross.”

During all his time on the road, he says he never doubted what he was doing. “No matter how tough it was, I never even considered stop­ping. I would have stopped only if I died, or because it wasn’t the will of God.

“But I always thought it was a way to get into the world. We’ve erected barriers, and we say you can’t go to Muslim areas; but the fact is the world is open, and you are free to go out with the message of Jesus and be received.”

The cross is a conversation-opener, he says, not a barrier, and he converses rather than preaches.

“I use the word ‘share’ rather than preach at people: I talk to people, people ask me about the weather, food, and people ask about Jesus.

I share Christ in a pleasant way. I share what he was, and tell them he loves them. Where you’re on the road there are no barriers, when you’re on the roadside you’re in the pulpit.”

Despite being nearly 70, Mr Blessitt plans to continue his cross- walks. This summer, he is due to return to Belfast, as well as appearing at Christian festivals in Norway and Sweden, where he will walk with the cross “to raise up another generation to follow Jesus”.

I also chat to Mr Blessitt’s son, Joshua, who accompanied his father on many of his trips during his childhood. He estimates that as many as one million people might have come to place their faith in Christ through his father’s preaching.

As we’re speaking, his father returns to the telephone, despite his son’s insistence that our time is up. His father wants to pray for me, asking God that I will discern his will for my life and glorify him in all I do. Four days after heart surgery, he is back on the job.

A book and a film, both entitled The Cross, have been produced. The book (Authentic Media, £9.99 (£9); 978-1-934068-67-0) is published next month. It is hoped that the film will be released in the UK at a future date: www.thecrossfilm.com

To order this book, email the details to Church Times Bookshop

A book and a film, both entitled The Cross, have been produced. The book (Authentic Media, £9.99 (£9); 978-1-934068-67-0) is published next month. It is hoped that the film will be released in the UK at a future date: www.thecrossfilm.com

To order this book, email the details to Church Times Bookshop

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