I felt so homeless as we trudged through yet another small town in northern Spain on El Camino. Since we had left South Africa at the end of March, we had been walking across Spain, and once we landed it would be another several months of hopping between family and friends before we settled in Texas in August. We’d only been on our pilgrimage about a week, and already I was sick of it. So many people talk about how freeing it is to hike Camino with only the bare essentials you need on your back, but all I could think about was the first minute when I could finally put my pack down and leave my toothbrush in the same place for more than five minutes. Slugging your worldly belongings with you everywhere because you don’t have a place to leave them is exhausting—even if it is just one change of clothes and a sleeping bag. I couldn’t wait to be rid of them.
As we sat down on a bench in a sliver of sunshine in a small plaza and took out our loaf of bread and red pepper for supper, I saw a homeless man approach the door of the church nearby and take a seat. He made me uncomfortable. He was wearing every piece of clothing he had to ward off the cold, he didn’t look very clean, and he obviously had mental health challenges.
As we ate our supper, I thought back to the one piece of advice we got before leaving on Camino: “Don’t take anything you don’t want to throw away.” We took that literally. I was wearing my mom-in-law’s old hiking pants that I had been using as painting gear for the past three years in South Africa, and David hadn’t shaved in days (which is always a little frightening). We were on a tight budget, and so were hand-washing our one change of clothes every night, rather than paying to use the washers. We really didn’t look that different from the homeless man.
When the warm church finally opened for mass, we tumbled inside with the homeless man and a few other people. When it came time to kneel, I didn’t know if I would be able to make it back up. We had walked over 20 miles that day, in search of a donativo (donation-based) hostel. The town five miles back was full of private hostels that were out of our price range. I was tired. So, so tired of carrying that stupid pack, of feeling dislocated, of having to walk, and walk, and walk.
After mass, the priest announced, “Pilgrims, please come forward for a blessing.” David and I stood, along with a Canadian woman, and trudged forward. I looked behind me and saw the homeless man was coming too. The priest asked us where we were from. We went around the small circle, explaining our journey so far, and the homeless man waved his hand, too.
“Ah, yes, you can tell us where you are from, too.” the priest said with a small smile. One had the feeling he did this every night. Yet the priest listened to the man, who was all the while rocking on his heels with a nervous tick.
The priest had us bow our heads while sprinkling us with holy water. The homeless man tapped the priest at the end, and the priest made sure to sprinkle him a bit, too.The priest chuckled and handed the holy water to his assistant, “That is not really anything,” he said. “This is the part that is important.” Then he placed his hand on our forehead, asked us our name, and prayed for us this pilgrim blessing that is said at the end of the mass in Santiago:
O God, who brought your servant Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans, protecting him in his wanderings, who guided the Hebrew people across the desert, we ask that you watch over Stephanie, your servant, as she walks in the love of your name to Santiago de Compostela.
Be for her companion on the walk, her guide at the crossroads, her breath in her weariness, her protection in danger, her albergue on the Camino, her shade in the heat, her light in the darkness, her consolation in our discouragements, and her strength in her intentions.
So that with your guidance she may arrive safe and sound at the end of the Road and enriched with grace and virtue return safely to her home filled with joy. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
We all waited as one by one, he prayed for each of us by name. I watched as the white haired priest (who has come to look exactly like Pope Francis in my imagination, although I’m sure that can’t be exactly right) placed his hand on the homeless man’s forehead and prayed for his journey.
I wish I could say we became best friends with the homeless man, shared our food, and found a place to bunker down together. This could be a story of transcending language and class barriers and pushing through my own discomfort to consider someone else—but it’s not. The man went off with the priest afterwards, and we slept by the side of the road a little ways outside of town. The donativo hostel was closed for the season. But sleeping on the side of the road, I realized in a new way how un-homeless I am. How I have so many friends and family, so much social capital, that even without a house I’d probably never be in the position of the homeless man with whom we had mass.
But the thing I remember most about that moment, the thing that kept me warm in my sleeping bag that windy night, was the memory of my interaction with the priest. How for a few minutes, I felt totally accepted, and cherished, and welcome. Even though I was dirty, and tired and could hardly speak the language around me, I had a home.
And so for the next while on the blog, I want to think about hospitality. I want to think about what it actually means to welcome strangers in. Is there more to hospitality than just having a clean house and chocolate chip cookies handy for visitors? The greek word for hospitality literally means “love of strangers”. We like loving our neighbors who talk and sound and look like us. But how can we welcome people who are totally different to us in the way of Christ? How can we offer our lives up as spaces to welcome people?
In the coming weeks, I’ve invited several friends to share this space on the blog. They’ll be helping us see what it means to welcome the homeless and the immigrant in both South Africa and America. Thanks for joining this journey!
Here are the links to all the posts in the hospitality series:
On Condemning broken things – The story of the woman caught in adultery
Giving more than Spare change– Greg Jewell, South Africa
Christians at the Border- Christian view of immigration & book review
What you can DO about US immigration– book review on US immigration
On welcoming Muslims– Rachel Jonker, USA
An Open Door (SA refugees & immigrants)– Interview with Bishop Paul Verryn, South Africa
Home- Annie Diamond, USA