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A spiritual pilgrimage by bicycle

6.1. 2014 66 Times read

Global Anabaptism: Stories from the global Mennonite church

Each year, thousands of people from all around the world give up the familiar routines of work, the comforts of their homes and the convenience of their cars to walk the pilgrim’s trail known as the Camino de Santiago.

Nearly half of Colombia's 46 million inhabitants live on approximately $8 per day, and 15 percent survive on less than $2 per day. Years of violence in the countryside have uprooted millions of families from their homes, with hundreds of displaced people showing up in Bogotá every day. The rapidly-growing San Nicolás neighborhood has one school for its 5,000 inhabitants but no clinic, no police station and few basic services. Yet Sunday after Sunday, Jonathan made the trip across town with a van laden with sandwiches.

Carrying only what can fit into a backpack, these modern pilgrims travel by foot westward across northern Spain, sometimes for weeks on end, before arriving at their destination—the cathedral of Santiago de Compestela. (See the cover story in our February issue.) 

The motives of these footweary travelers are undoubtedly varied. Some are merely adventure seekers, looking for a physical challenge or a simple change of scenery. But others are on a spiritual quest, hungrily seeking the face of God by slowing down their lives and practicing new forms of vulnerability.
Stories of pilgrims run deep in the Christian tradition. From Abraham and Sarah’s departure from Ur to the Exodus out of Egypt, from the journeys of the early apostles to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Christians have always recognized that God is revealed in a special way to refugees, to exiles, and to “strangers and pilgrims” (1 Peter 2:11).

On the evening of April 18, several dozen family and friends gathered at the main entrance to Goshen (Ind.) College to welcome three young wayfarers who were returning home from an epic pilgrimage.

In May of the previous year, Abe Stucky, Levi Smucker and Michael Miller joined 17 classmates in Paraguay for a three-week, intensive Goshen College course on “Anabaptist History in Paraguay.”

But when the rest of the group returned by plane to the United States, the three young men mounted bicycles and began pedaling from the capital city of Asuncíon through the Paraguayan Chaco to Bolivia.

Over the next 11 months, they made their way northward—along the Andes mountains in South America to the Panama Canal and through Central America, Mexico and the southern United States—before arriving in Goshen some 10,300 miles later.

As with pilgrims throughout the ages, the motives behind the journey were varied. They were hungry for adventure but also eager to become more fluent in Spanish and to experience the rich diversity of Latino cultures.

And they had a special interest in learning more about the wide range of Mennonite groups that have taken root over the past century in Central and South America.

Thus, their journey included visits with indigenous Quechua Mennonites in Peru and Bolivia; Latino Mennonite congregations in Colombia, Ecuador and Nicaragua; Beachy Amish groups in Costa Rica; and a variety of Low German “colony” Mennonites in Bolivia, Belize and Mexico.

But the primary focus of their panamerican pilgrimage was, in the words of one young man, “to force ourselves to become vulnerable and look for the face of God in the people we met along the way.”

In the course of their journey, they were transformed. We learned, one said, to adapt to a new understanding of time. A flat tire, an unanticipated village fiesta, a chance encounter with another traveler constantly “disrupted” the schedule. “But that meant every day was an adventure. As long as we were heading in the right direction, keeping to a tight schedule was not that important.”

They also came to appreciate the gift of good conversation. Like countless pilgrims before them, the young men passed the time in their long journey by talking—with each other, of course, but especially with the strangers they met along the way.

In each new setting, the travelers made it a point to listen carefully to the stories of their hosts, asking questions about their history, customs and convictions. Despite profound differences of perspective and culture, those conversations always revealed surprising glimpses of a shared humanity—the face of God suddenly made visible.

Perhaps most important, the journey gradually turned the vulnerabilities of each day into a spiritual discipline.

Frequently, the travelers entered a small town at the end of a day not knowing where they would spend the night.

Over time, they learned to rely on God’s providence, usually expressed as the kindness of strangers: Catholic priests still practicing the ancient tradition of hospitality to pilgrims, Pentecostal pastors who turned their churches into hostels, firefighters who welcomed them into the fire station or dozens of newfound friends who simply opened their homes.

“We return aware of the deep debts of hospitality that we have accumulated,” they said. “We have no option but to share with others.”

Perhaps the global church is best understood as people on a pilgrimage—taking time, sharing in conversation, practicing hospitality.

John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review.

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