July 29, 2019
Grace and peace in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! I just returned to Iowa a few days ago after spending the past five weeks walking the El Camino de Santiago (The Way) pilgrim trail in Spain with my husband, Gary.
The Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James, is an ancient pilgrimage trail with its roots in the 9th century A.D. According to anecdotal evidence, it seems that the apostle James may have sailed to Galicia in modern day Spain to preach after Jesus’ crucifixion. When he returned to Jerusalem, James was beheaded by Herod in 42 A.D., and his disciples brought his remains back to Spain to be buried.
Centuries later, in 813 A.D., a shepherd named Pelayo found remains of a body in a field to which he was led by the stars of the Milky Way. The local bishop declared that the remains were those of the Apostle St. James and ordered that a church be built over the site in what is known today as Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain.
For centuries, peregrinos (Spanish for “pilgrims”) have made the five-hundred-mile pilgrimage on foot on the commonly agreed upon route from St. Jean Pied de Port in southern France to Santiago de Compostela. The Camino has become more well-known in recent years, and today an estimated 250,000 people travel parts of this ancient peregrino trail every year.
I will share more of this life-changing experience in the days to come but want to make a few observations as I reflect upon the deep spiritual impact of the El Camino. During the weeks I was gone, our national legislators have struggled with the effect of overcrowded border facilities for detained migrant children. In addition, our country still wrestles with racism as four new female minority representatives in the House of Representatives (all American citizens) were urged by President Trump to go back to their countries of origin to fix problems there.
Clearly, racism and sexism are still significant issues in the United States, and I pray that, as United Methodists, we will be clear about our call as disciples of Jesus Christ to treat all people with dignity and respect, whether they are children who are separated from their parents in our immigration system or people of color who are denied basic human rights in a country that claims to welcome “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
On the first day of the Camino, which is the most difficult day of walking on the entire trail, Gary and I met a man from Italy named Luigi. Luigi did not look prepared for a 500-mile trek. He wasn’t wearing hiking shoes, and he didn’t carry a form-fitting pack on his back. Rather, he slung a number of bags over each shoulder and carried a set of rosary beads in his hands. Luigi, Gary, and I had several wonderful conversations at the beginning of the walk, and we observed how he would continually approach people and ask kindly, “Can I carry something for you?”
Clearly, Luigi was not going to be able to walk for a month with all of his stuff, let alone carry the bags of others, yet he kept up the pace. One time when a donkey was braying in a farmyard, Luigi waved his rosary beads and demanded that the donkey be quiet. When Luigi asked if we were Catholic, we said that we were United Methodists and had a wonderful conversation. We never saw Luigi again but carried with us his gentle heart. He was on a journey of faith. We hope and pray Luigi made it to Santiago de Compostela!
The other story took place at the end of the trip, when we visited Finisterre on the Mediterranean, which was considered in Roman times to be the end of the known world. We were in a bus with two elderly women who spoke only Spanish. My Spanish is pretty rough since I’ve rarely used it since high school and college. When we stopped at an ancient church along the Sea, I noticed that one of the women was having difficulty navigating the stones, so I gently took her arm to offer support until we got back to steady ground. She was very grateful for the help.
While we were on the bus, the other women handed me a slip with her name and that of her friend, along with a telephone number. At our last stop, I asked the women if they were Catholics, and they said yes. Then I said that Gary and I were pastors in The United Methodist Church. Their faces lit up, and Maria said, “We have one God who loves us all, no matter who we are.”They hugged and kissed me, and I could not hold back the tears.
You and I are, indeed, part of one human family. I was reminded of that truth day after day on the Camino. I counted people from over forty countries that we met on the trail. While they had many different motivations, all of the peregrinos understood that they were on a spiritual journey. I never witnessed anyone speaking harshly to another person or treating them poorly. Rather, every single person was ready and willing to help another out as needed, knowing that we were all on the pilgrimage together.
The kingdom of God was indeed in our midst on the El Camino. I pray it might be so as well in our country, in The United Methodist Church, and right here in the Iowa Annual Conference. May God bless your summer as you enjoy the beauty of God’s creation, reach out to those in need in your communities, and offer expressions of hope and love to all.