It was on Maundy Thursday that my husband and I began our pilgrimage in the south of France. Our walk on El Camino –the way. It was night, we were in an old stone church, hearing the readings about the children of Israel walking out of Egypt, and slavery, and starting their long walk to freedom. Continue reading
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
Right now I’m blogging about my El Camino experience. If you want to see David’s take, the link to his blog is here.
Traditionally, the pilgrim went on a pilgrimage with just his cloak on his back and lots of faith that churches and kind people along the way would provide for his every material need until he reached Santiago. (And yes, I specifically used “he” because there were virtually no female pilgrims back in the day, because of the bandits and sickness and extreme cold and maybe death).
We did not go with only our cloaks. As much as we liked to feel self-righteous about our “real pilgrim” poverty, we had warm sleeping bags, hiking boots that cost hundreds of dollars and enough money to eat pretty much every day. We even had sleeping pads for the three times we slept outside. If one of us got seriously sick, we could have bailed.
We were not poor. But at the same time, we were the poorest I’ve ever been. David and I had a set budget we had for the trip, and, yeah, we had emergency money, but when you’re coming from South Africa where one of you has been a teacher and the other a volunteer, and the exchange rate is R13 for one Euro… we really didn’t have money.
I’m a bit of a control freak. I like to know how much I have, and where it’s all going, and what the plan is going to be. When I’m in my normal life, I read that verse about not worrying about life, or what I’ll eat or drink, and I say, “Fine, then I’ll just worry about my masters thesis and my job and the whole world instead of food and drink.”
But on Camino, life was stripped down to eating, sleeping and walking. Only three things to worry about. Piece of cake.
Ah, but I was quite good at worrying. The whole first three days I was calculating and re-calculating what we had spent, and berating David for not keeping track of the receipts, and living with a spirit of scarcity. On the occasion we would splurge on chocolate or spend a whole euro on a packet of chocowheel biscuits, I would want to sneak off and eat them alone instead of in the communal kitchen where I’d have to share. Shameful, but true. I’m okay sharing when I know I have enough. But hello, these are my chocowheels, and I can’t just be extravagant with them and share them willy-nilly with those undeserving people who probably can afford to go buy coffee whenever they want.
I’m into controlling and managing and planning.
Something I’m learning is the Christian life is not just abstract pieces of truth for us to think about. It’s lived, and it takes practice. This is the joy of spiritual disciplines–you actually do something in order to reshape the way you think and act and live life. So for a month, I practiced the spiritual discipline of being poor.
And I began to pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’, and really mean it.
I began to be amazed that the words of Jesus, “Look, the birds don’t worry because my heavenly father feeds them. You don’t worry about what you’ll eat or drink” really are true. Day after day after day, I saw how God did provide. Sometimes not exactly what I wanted (a picnic area we could sleep in rather than a cheap albergue), and sometimes not when I wanted. But it was enough.
I began to open my hands a little. I began to share. I began to look for people we could invite to share our spaghetti with us in the evenings, and when they wanted to chip in to the cost say, “No, don’t bother. There’s more than enough.” There was. There was always enough. There was even more than enough.
That was the lesson that pounded through my feet and into my heart over that month. There’s enough.
“Where in the States are you going?” asked the albergue volunteer at Granon. “I’ve been to the States and I loved it!”
“Where did you go?” David and I asked.
“Detroit. I was there in 2008.”
David and I looked at each other. “And you loved it?!” we said. “Sorry, that’s just not usually what people say about Detroit, especially in 2008.”
“Well,” she said, “It reminded me of Camino. People were losing their jobs left and right, and no one had anything, but they just shared what they had, and there was so much joy and generosity.”
There is enough.
In South Africa, we live in this guilt-ridden “middle-class” space, where compared to the average person in the community of Sweetwaters we’re stinking rich, but compared to David’s co-workers at school and our friends at church we’re kind of poor. And in South Africa we’re always awkwardly wondering how much to spend, and on what. Like church friends inviting us out to do somekind of expensive social thing, and thinking, “No ways do we want to spend that much money on that,” but then feeling bad about saying no, and then when people press and say, “Is it a money thing? We can cover for you,” feeling even more awkward. Because we have money. We just don’t want to spend it all on movies or lattes or wine-tastings. And so then we have to wrestle with what we should spend our money on, and every time people offer us money to join them in some social activity, having that internal debate, “Should we? Shouldn’t we? Are we being selfish if we accept the money? Are we being selfish party-poopers if we don’t?” Welcome to the guilt-ridden middle-class life.
On Camino, I was free of any of those qualms. And it was wonderful. It was so freeing to be poor. I could just accept things, and I didn’t have to sort through guilt, or make decisions, or wonder if I was taking advantage of someone’s kindness. I needed it, I couldn’t pay it back, and I knew it.
When our recently retired Korean American friends invited us to go grocery shopping with them and then completely covered the bill, we just praised God and said thank you. And they didn’t do it just once, but several times, and not just for us, but for many pilgrims.
At Logrono, when the volunteers served us meat and potato stew, with piles of fresh bread and salad, and took us in an underground tunnel to the cathedral to pray, the volunteer host said, “Thank you for blessing us by coming. This is what we live for, when you come, you give us a great, great privilege. A privilege one that many people in their lives never have: the privilege of getting to serve and get nothing back. It is our joy to serve you here.” And I received.
When our Florida-Venezuelan friend Jesus saw me hobbling on my wooden hiking sticks and he flung them out of my hands and gave me brand-new, high-tech hiking poles (that we could never afford), all I could do was receive.
When we met up with him at Santiago, and had bear-hugs and laughter outside the cathedral, and I tried to thank him, he said in his thick Spanish accent, “Ah, you know, after Granon, when everyone went around and shared why they were really on the Camino, and you said that you had been working in South Africa and that all you wanted was to just see Christ on this trip, it really touched me and I had been looking for a person to bless, and then I knew it was going to be you. So then when I saw you walking along with those terrible sticks, I was just so happy, because I saw exactly how I could help you. So thanks, man. You gave me a chance to give.” So I received.
When in albergue after albergue, communal suppers and breakfasts were set out for us to eat as much as we could, we dropped in our coins, but we knew that they could not cover the real cost of the meal, the hot shower, and the bed. The churches and volunteers running the albergues bore the real costs. We just received.
When we stayed at a cheap hostel and walked over to visit our friends at their hippy-commune hostel, the hosts said, “Oh, please stay for supper, it’s just donativo and we’d love to have you eat with us.” We stayed. And we ate curried cumin carrot soup, and home-made rye bread, and salad with avocado and home-made coriander lime dressing, and Japanese style eggplant, and vegan carrot cake, and a choice of oolong or jasmine or rooibos tea to finish it all off . And at every point, the volunteers wouldn’t let us leave our seats, “It’s our joy to serve you,” they said. So we received.
A volunteer at one albergue pressed a 30 Euro note into my hand and said, “My husband and I just wanted to bless you with this.” And I received.
And then I thought of how hard it is for me to accept things in normal life. And how hard it is for me to accept not just physical gifts, but spiritual gifts as well.
It’s hard for me to accept grace. I know in my head God loves me and has freely given himself to me. But in the middle-class morality of my Christian upbringing, I’m the rich man.
It’s hard for me to get into the kingdom because I think I’ve got something to offer. Thanks for this grace, God, but, you know, I have actually got something here for you, too. I’m a pretty good girl. Look at all these amazing things I’ve done for you. And then I get critical and judgmental with myself for not doing enough, and I get critical and judgmental of other people who are not doing enough. I’m not free to receive from God because my hands are full. It’s difficult for me to receive the way I received when I was poor—joyfully, and full of relief, and thankfulness, and with both hands outstretched.
These are two things I want to carry with me from Camino. Now that we’re looking for jobs, and it’s not just tomorrow I’m trying not to worry about, but all the days after that as well… I’m trying to cling to the truths that God pounded into my soul through the soles of my feet:
There will always be enough.
And blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Or, as Eugene Peterson says, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.
With less of you there is more of God and his rule”.
Side note for the literalists: So, I’m not saying with this post that life is just one big party of seeing God’s provision every day for people who live their whole lives in material poverty. We weren’t actually poor on this trip– we were materially poor for a short period of time. Material poverty leads to (& is part and parcel of) other kinds of poverty that are deeply dehumanizing, like shame and inadequacy, and lack of opportunity, and of course we should do all we can to break people out of the cycle of poverty. And we don’t do that just by giving hand-outs. If you’re confused, watch this video. End of sermon.
I did not expect to learn anything about suffering when I started Camino. I mean, okay, I should have thought about it a bit more. Really, the longest I have hiked is like maybe 7 hours in the Berg, and yet it was actually my idea to do a 25km hike every day for a month all across Spain. David suggested doing just like two weeks or something, because he’s actually hiked for long distances, but I naively said we should do all or nothing.
This mix (25km per day + a person who hasn’t really hiked + hiking boots that were not completely broken in+ one foot that is 1/2 a size bigger than the other) resulted in pain for the first half of the hike. First it was bruised toes, then I threw out my knee from over-compensating and then I got blisters.
I’ve never lived with chronic physical pain before. I’ve read stories about people who live with chronic pain and shudder and wonder how they do it. Now that I’ve experienced a tiny sliver I still wonder how they do it. When you’re in pain, it’s like there’s this green fog that just covers everything in pea soup, and it’s basically impossible to say kind things, or be patient, or notice other people. David’s pain coping strategy was counting. Our friend Tom (of Secret Life of Walter Mitty fame) told me on the third day, “Yeah, I was in a lot of pain yesterday, but then it just made me angry. And so I decided to get angry back at the pain, and then I could keep going.” My coping strategy was singing. For some reason, I discovered if I channeled all my internal energy that wanted to scream (or swear– but David told me that the pope would make me walk backwards and redo every mile I swore) and channeled it into singing, I could keep walking.
I was once told by a music major friend that singing and crying are just a shade apart. I think I understand that now. I also think I have a new appreciation for the history of African American spirituals. Because when you’re in pain, and you can’t get rid of it but can only keep going forward, the perfect song isn’t one that’s a happy pop song (that just mocks your current pain) but if the song is too mournful, you’d just sit down and give up. Spirituals walk that tightrope of suffering and hope, and I think that’s why they’ve lasted. Because walking through this world is always a tightrope walk between suffering and hope.
We quickly learned there are pilgrims and then there are pilgrims. Like life, your level of comfort on the Camino is greatly impacted by your amount of money. The recently retired holiday-makers could stop for a couple hours when it was raining and sip coffee and hot chocolate in bars until it stopped. We had to find a bus stop, or a tree, or an overhang, or just gut it out. We were structuring our walking days around the cheapest places to stay (the donation based or municipal hostels), but when the rich people got tired, they could afford to stay in whichever private albergue was closest.
I tried not to be bitter. But, yeah, I was bitter.
We met Arturo during the final push towards Leon. The stretch before Leon is several days of flat, tedious wheat fields. It was green, we can’t complain that much, in summer it’s brown. But we experienced our first real rainy days on the meseda, and we’d been going for almost two weeks, and David was starting to get blisters. We arrived at the small albergue and Arturo, a portly Castillian met us at the door, excited to see us. There was only one other couple in the entire albergue and they were Korean. Their English was minimal, and they didn’t know any Spanish. But Arturo was so thrilled to finally have people staying with him (he even went out and picked flowers to decorate the sparse surroundings) that we all sat down and talked for two hours. David was appointed chief translator, and had to interpret Arturo’s Spanish into English for me and English/sign-language for the Koreans. Arturo was very upset at the Koreans when we arrived, because the wife had sent her bag ahead in a taxi.
“No!” he kept saying, “No, no no! Tell them, David, tell them it’s not good for the pilgrim to send the bag ahead. The bag is part of the pilgrim. Yes, it’s difficult, but it’s good to suffer. Tell her it is good to suffer.”
David apologetically tried to mime and explain in English to the couple, with Arturo hovering over his shoulder and nodding emphatically.
“I have done many Caminos, and in my first Camino, I had injured my foot and I sent my bag ahead for one kilometer. When I picked it up again, I thought, “No, this is bad, I should not have sent my bag ahead. I should take a taxi back and re-walk that kilometer with my pack.” But I did not. I was too proud. And I regretted it the whole time.” He shook his head sadly. “You need your bag. It is part of you. When you get to the end, and you take off your bag, it’s just aaahhh!” Arturo mimed taking off his pack and the feeling of release he felt. Arturo was an artist, and he sketched a picture of Christ. “It’s like the cross that Christ carried,” Arturo said. “You need this burden for this journey.”
In my protestant worldview, I don’t have a concept of doing penance. I don’t think somehow I’ll earn heavenly points if I purposefully go through physical suffering. I’m working for a community development organization that’s committed to alleviating human suffering. There’s enough suffering in the world already…why willingly add to it?
But then I think of the way we numb suffering, through money, through tv series, through pain-killers, through air-conditioners, through faster cars and quicker internet. Of course we wouldn’t dream of walking 35 minutes to the store in the heat when we can drive. We don’t have to experience loneliness, because we can log-in to Facebook on our phones. We don’t have to feel cold, or feel vulnerable, or feel hungry. But when we do that, we let comfort completely dictate our life-choices.
Who is more free? The person who is trapped by ensuring comfort, or the person who has the strength to experience a bit of suffering? The person who has to stop walking when it starts to rain, or the person who is able to just shrug and keep going? The person who has to stop at a nice albergue, or a person who can walk until sunset and is content to sleep under a tree?
And then, I think about Jesus, and how he freely suffered. He wasn’t forced into it. He willingly picked up his humanity, like we willingly picked up our backpacks, and he trudged through life with us.
He freely died an excruciating death.
Ah, but the thing that’s different about Jesus is that he suffered in order to redeem even suffering. Suffering is no longer an arbitrary part of being human, it’s redeemed into something that can be used to make us more like Jesus. It goes from something we need to fear, and craft our lives in order to avoid, and instead becomes a tool to make us better.
As a Christ follower, I don’t have to be afraid of suffering: of physical suffering or even the emotional suffering of being alone. Not because with Jesus I’ll have magic that makes my life more comfortable, but because I have the confidence that everything, even suffering, can be used by God for something good. When I’m faced with choices, I’m not forced to always choose the most comfortable. I’m free to choose anything, because I’m unafraid.
Not only that, but I know that there’s a weight of glory coming that will make the backpack I carry now feel like nothing.
David’s 3-part blog series where he talks a little bit about Camino and his experience of it can be found here.
We have finished El Camino de Santiago! For those of you who are interested in the practical side of this experience, David will be posting on his blog what our daily life was like, what we ate, how our feet felt, and all that stuff over the next few days, and I promise to put in the links. El Camino is a pilgrimage, which for us involved hiking about 500 miles from St. Jean Pied de Port in France, to Santiago, Spain over about 31 days.
It was my fourth day of walking. I had injured my toes coming down over the Pyrenees mountains on the first day, and every step made me wince with pain. I was dying to take of my constricting hiking boots and put on my flip flops, but we had left the beautiful walled city of Pamplona early that morning, and I knew there was no place to go except the town that was still seven kilometers away. It was approaching my three o’clock melt-down hour. David and I discovered that no matter how short a distance we walked, if it got to three and we were still walking, I would become an emotional wreck. By the time I hobbled into the town, blindly following David, who was scanning the streets for the tell-tale yellow arrows that point out the way to the albergue (or pilgrim refuge), my feet were throbbing. We arrived at the albergue, and the hospitalero (volunteer host) greeted us with a smile. “Welcome! Please sit down, here is a glass of water. You must be tired. Just sit here until I am done checking these other pilgrims in.” We plopped down our packs and sat, sipping cool water and glad to be off our feet and out of the sun. I read a notice stuck up to the wall: “This albergue has been welcoming pilgrims since the 1300’s when the seminary connected with this church was first opened. The seminary students hosted pilgrims, and we continue this tradition today. Welcome home.” And that’s when I burst into tears.
Welcome home, pilgrim. You’re tired. Your feet are sore. You’re hungry. You come hobbling and weary. You come pretty much empty handed. But you are welcome. This is your home.
For the past month, this is what we have been doing. Walking (or hobbling) between little villages in Spain, with only one change of clothes in our backpacks, and praying for food and a cheap place to stay (since our South African rand do not go very far in Europe). And even though I did this for days and days, it still struck me every time– this bizarre warm welcome. I’m a stranger. I don’t speak the language. I have nothing to offer. But the churches (and sometimes hippy communities) who hosted us would fling open the doors and give us a place to sit, and serve us water, or cookies, or iced tea and give us a bed for a donation. We’ve been served hearty potato soap and salad in Logrono, cooked a communal meal of soup and roast chicken with 30 of our friends we met along the Way in Granon, been served a three-course gormet vegan meal at the hippy commune in Hospital, had strawberry short cake served to us by an Arizona church group working at an alburgue run by Cru, eaten our weight five times over in spaghetti at pretty much everywhere else, sometimes just alone, but often with other pilgrims who pitch in their garlic, or salt, or wine to make the meal better.
We were pilgrims, on a journey for different reasons. We wanted to see Spain, to have an adventure together before grad school, to transition between our South African home and our American home. But we also just wanted to see Christ better. That was my prayer each morning as I stuffed my feet back into my hiking boots. “Show us Christ today.” I had imagined that solitude and beautiful surroundings would have given me some kind of connection with God, but pretty much every place that I saw Christ was through people.
I know that God provides for all our needs, but the spiritual discipline of walking with basically nothing for a month, and seeing God provide again and again drove that truth very deeply into my soul. When people picture medieval Catholic churches, they probably picture stone and cold floors, hard benches, and weird icons– to us, they were warm, welcoming refuges. And we were basically just tourists- sure, we were doing this trip without a lot of money but if there had been an extreme emergency, we would have been fine. They could have charged us lots of money for a bed and food and not felt guilty about it– but they didn’t. It was in this context that I started hearing about the xenophobic attacks happening in South Africa. About poor South Africans who were frustrated with how life was no different for them then it was under apartheid, and who turned their frustration towards the immigrants and refugees who have been pouring into South Africa from other parts of Africa. Horrible, horrible violence. Not a genocide, but it suddenly made more sense how genocides can happen. And here was I, the stranger, walking through Spain with not a word of Spanish, being shown radical hospitality. I was reading the book Planted by Leah Kostamo, and this part jumped out to me:
The Greek word for hospitality–philoxenia–assumes a reaching out to those unknown. Taken apart, the word literally means love of stranger: philo, for love, and xenia, for stranger…The Hebrew Bible in one verse commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself, but in now fewer than 36 places commands us to ‘love the stranger.” Jesus joins the two in the parable of the Good Samaritan explaining that the stranger is really and truly also one’s own neighbor.
As I read more and more articles about the xenophobic attacks, and watched my friends Facebook feeds, I was saddened by what I saw. Often the people who were calling on others to “love the stranger” were the same ones who had been terrible at “loving their neighbors”– the poor South Africans in their communities. As this perspective, or this perspective of a poor black South African explains, “We see you coming in and giving food and blankets to the foreigners, and you’re so worried about their safety, but for the past twenty years we’ve been living in these townships and poverty, hungry and homeless and you never once came to help us.” While I don’t think anything justifies violence against other people, in these articles I could glimpse a sliver of the frustration and anger that systematic oppression had created in many people. And I realized that for many wealthy white South Africans, their neighbors are strangers.
The love of neighbor and stranger should extend to the poor, jobless refugees fleeing from violence and poverty and also to the poor, underpaid domestic worker living in your own home. It doesn’t have to be either/or. In Jesus, we see it’s both.
I’ve been a stranger for the past month. I’ve been confused about how to get where I needed to go, I’ve been needy and lost, and tired, (but I never once was living in terror for my safety or the safety of my family and friends)– and yet I’ve been welcomed by the church. I’ve been given refuge.
This is my prayer for South Africa. That the church will be a refuge.
That followers of Christ living in poor townships will be able to rise above the frustration and anger at the economic injustice and love the strangers in their midst.
That the followers of Christ in middle-class and affluent neighborhoods will stop living at the expense of the poor, and instead sacrificially simplify their lifestyles so that everyone has enough.
That we will welcome the strangers into our homes and our lives, and fling open our doors to give soul-weary and poor wanderers a place to call home for a while.
PS: GREAT series of blogs by Annie Diamond, a university friend, on the theme of welcoming the stranger here. You MUST read them. Dry Bones Denver, the organization she wrote these blog posts for, exists to serve the homeless youth and young adults in Denver, Colorado.
The old missionaries say that in their day, the 3 week boat trip was part of the grieving and transition process– the first half of the trip was spent saying goodbye to one country, and the second half was looking forward to the new. We’ve had lots of goodbyes this past week, and we’re looking forward for some time to process it all on Camino. In light of that, here’s something I wrote in the throws of all the goodbyes last week- not very edited or anything, since I’m sitting in Brussels right now about to get on a train to the start of Camino, but I thought it would be better if I shared it now rather than in a month.
We had our last day at Christ Church today.
We led worship with James. We practiced the night before, practiced the songs we’ve sung and played together for the last year. Songs that feel familiar, like putting on an old comfy jersey, but always new, because when I enter inside of them and really sing them, I’m always surprised at how I see the face of God staring back at me, like I’m a baby playing peek-a-boo. Of course I would see God, that’s the whole purpose, but it always takes me by surprise–like rounding the corner on the hill heading down into Sweetwaters, and the sun is shining bright green on the mountain and your breath catches in your throat and you’re hit with it like the first time you saw it.
Last night we finished practicing and none of us really wanted it to be over. Everything this past week has been the last: the last trip to the DVD shop (what a novelty, in the US, we’ll just stream everything online- much more convenient, but this guy actually knows our name), last time buying fresh bread from the Spar and slicing it while hot, the last time getting petrol put into our car at the full-service petrol stations.
And now the last worship practice. How many times had we dragged ourselves into practice after a long day of David chasing belligerent basketball boys and me getting headaches from computer screens, and walked into the strange dim light of the church, where James would be hunched over the piano, with just one light perched over the music, and sheets of discarded song selections scattered around the floor, hammering out songs till the air and the piano strings vibrated with glory.
And we’d start standing around the piano, tired and bleary, wondering why practice had to drag on so, and really the timing was just fine—but by the end we’d go home singing in the car, knowing it had been good.
And so after we’d picked out and practiced the songs, we sat around and none of us really wanted it to all be over, so we talked about the ethics of data mining, and all of our non-existent plans for the future, and in every awkward pause when someone needed to say, “Well, time for us to head out,” none of us did, because instead we managed to think of some new mundane thing to say that hadn’t been said yet.
And so this morning we sang in church, and heaven didn’t come down, but it was good. And then Pastor John called us up to be prayed for, and as we stood there and I saw the faces of the people who have supported and prayed for us over these past two years—people who have sometimes frustrated me, but people who have loved me and trusted me to sing, and to teach their kids, and have prayed for me and for kids in Sweetwaters. And it was humbling.
I think leaving is like getting cancer or some terminal illness. It’s a good thing to go through every once in a while. It reminds you why life is worth living and all those mundane people and irritating habits melt away when you step back a few miles and see what an impact they’ve made on you. It’s like the montage at the end of the new ‘The Giver” or “It’s About Time,” those mash-ups of ordinary, everyday moments that when paired with soaring music suddenly seem very wonderful and beautiful.
Like our going-away braai. It was raining (of course it was raining, this is Hilton, you can’t have a braai without rain), and so we all crowded into our almost empty cottage in folding chairs and ate off of paper plates and drank out of borrowed cups and there were kids running in-between people’s knees, and Zulu and English and Irish and American accents and utter chaos and lots of laughing.
Or the next morning when Kate and I sat drinking Milo while the boys played some stupid game and we all ate scrambled eggs, and then paid our whole bill in one Rand coins. Nothing special happened, there were no moving speeches or profound words, but the whole thing was profound because it was so ordinary.
And after we’d been prayed for, and after the kids had surprised me with cake and balloons and hugs up in Sunday school, and we’d sung the last song as everyone led out of the sanctuary, and David had strummed the last chord, we all looked at each other and that’s when it hit me.
So this is it.
It’s really over now.
And it hurts like graduation day.
The day I graduated from college it was so hot I felt smothered in my long black robe, and it didn’t help I was running on about four hours of sleep because the day before had been filled on either end with seeing my family that had travelled all the way out to see me, and David’s family who had travelled all the way out to see him and me, and professors, and cleaning out the apartment, and the closing events for work, and honors, and departments… and all I wanted to do was sit around one more time with all my Taylor buddies at the Hayes house eating crappy pasta dishes made from the vegetable bits we could steal from the Grill and drinking budget Cola and talk about life and sports and predestination and what we were going to do with our lives.
But instead we were forced through these hot hours of pomp and ceremony, and when it was done, I hugged some of my friends outside the gym, then waved as they walked away and all of a sudden it hit me that this was it.
It was really over now.
This wasn’t just, “Oh, bye until next semester.” This wasn’t even, “Let’s see if we can meet up at Thanksgiving.”
This was it.
I was getting married and we were moving to South Africa.
This was the end of living three minutes away from all your best friends, the days when you could take naps in the middle of the day and then go hang out until 2am talking about American evangelicalism and whether Nacho Libre counted as a profound work of art.
And so I was walking through the hallway and I saw Felicia, one of my professors and friends, and I guess everything was written on my face because she opened her arms, her gown billowing wide and said, “Are you okay?” And I started to say, “Yeah,” but couldn’t even get that far because I was sobbing so hard. She sat me down and gave me a bottle of water and listened to my garbled mess of, “This is it and we’re leaving and I’m not going to see these people again and it’s all over.”
And she hugged me and said, “You’ll be okay. You’ll see them all at the wedding.”
It was true. And it was a comfort. In a month I’d see most of my friends at our wedding.
And I did see them and it was wonderful.
It was just for a day, but it was sweet. On that day I cried again, not because everyone was going, but because everyone was there—friends and family from South Africa and from America all in one place. It was wonderful, but too short. In a few hours everyone was gone.
Oh, but there’s going to be another wedding.
That’s the wedding where we can argue about philosophy for hours, and our South African friends can play touch rugby and then football with our American friends, and we can have a corner dedicated just to laughing so hard our stomachs feel like they’ve run a marathon, and Jesus himself will be there (like he always is when we do these things, but more real and lots more fun). And then when we’re tired we can all just eat and sit around and quoting Nacho Libre and Jesus and poetry to each other.
So that’s what I cling to now, again, when the world is shifting once more under my feet, and the tide is sucking me away from friends that have cooked in my house and then washed my dishes, sat on the trampoline talking about the ethics of acting in Les Miserable, let me hold their new-born babies, tolerated my rants and my chameleon accents, lent us furniture and helped us move, prayed David into a work visa and prayed me out of mono.
I don’t want to leave. I want it to be a normal Thursday night again where we’re dashing back up the hill to music practice ignoring the fact we’re 45 minutes late and moaning about how disorganized James is.
I hate saying goodbye.
So I guess I’ll say see you at the wedding.