When your neighbor is a stranger: Hospitality Series

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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

PS. If you like this post on hospitality, you might like this one on South African immigrants, or this one on the world day of prayer.

Some thoughts On Suffering

Looking like hobos in a town square after a trip to the pharmacy for blister treatment. They gave us compeed (magic second skin stuff), alcohol and a syringe, because it's so good for popping blisters and sucking the liquid out. It's just, you know, disgusting.
Looking like hobos in a town square after a trip to the pharmacy for blister treatment. They gave us compeed (magic second skin stuff), alcohol and a syringe, because it’s so good for popping blisters and sucking the liquid out. It’s just, you know, disgusting.

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. 

More blister doctoring on the side of the road.
More blister doctoring on the side of the road.

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.”

The note that Arturo wrote for us to give to the head nun at Leon where we were staying the next night. Rough translation, "Welcome these pilgrims with great affection" or something. Ask David.
The note that Arturo wrote for us to give to the head nun at Leon where we were staying the next night. Rough translation, “Welcome these pilgrims with great affection” or something. Ask David.

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?

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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. 

Welcoming the Stranger

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.

One of the most beautiful parts of the Camino is at the end, in the province of Galacia.
One of the most beautiful parts of the Camino is at the end, in the province of Galacia. So I put in a picture of that, rather than where we were walking when I had my melt-down. 🙂

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.

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David in the kitchen making food for 30 pilgrims with Paulo (Italian) and Cindy (Korean American) that we met on the Way. He looks too excited about that knife.

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.

The parish refuge at Granon has a rule that they don't turn anyone away-- they feed and house pilgrims for whatever pilgrims can donate. In the summer, when there are lots of pilgrims, people sleep on the floor of the main church area- we got the loft since we were there in spring. When there are too many people to eat inside, they move the tables outside and have the communal meal out there.
The parish refuge at Granon has a rule that they don’t turn anyone away– they feed and house pilgrims for whatever pilgrims can donate. In the summer, when there are lots of pilgrims, people sleep on the floor of the main church area- we got the loft since we were there in spring. When there are too many people to eat inside, they move the tables outside and have the communal meal out there.

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.