In 1999 I went on my first pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayo in Chimayo, NM, as one of the 135 pilgrims who were sponsored by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe. My education in the art of pilgrimage began the very first morning I was there, around 5:00, when we stepped out of the old school gymnasium in Costilla, NM, and started to walk on the dusty ground. I was to walk over 120 miles in around five and a half days. As a suburban kid, the soles of my feet were as tender as a baby’s bottom. I was soon to discover blisters I’d forgotten about after leading hikes around Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson in Oregon. Striking the dusty ground with the side of my right foot, I leave a fragmented and temporary imprint upon the silt-like brown soil. The first gust of a good wind, or pouring rain, and the print will vanish. The education of a novice pilgrim’s body continues as the neural charges and synaptic nerve endings dance, and energy ascends and excites the vast web of arteries and veins throughout my body. With the upturn of the ankle, the muscles of my calves contract slightly, causing knee to bend with tendon’s help and thigh to tighten going forward and the back to a stride (Brett Webb-Mitchell, Follow Me, pp. 42-43).
What I wasn’t prepared for after that first day of walking was how much my legs would ache, along with the blisters on the bottom of my feet, and a slight back ache. I was amazed at how good a massage felt that night as I got up on a massage table and another pilgrim squeezed out the knots in my calves. Even though I thought I was physically fit for this journey, I was amazed and amused by the education that my very body had to go through, literally on the road, as I learned to walk the way of a pilgrim. Since then, I now anticipate that the first day or two of pilgrimage is always a shock to my body. What made it possible for me to forgot about the aches of the body was the feeding of the mind and spirit along the pilgrim’s way. Indeed, one of the “Aha” moments that happened on that first pilgrimage, experienced through acts of hospitality, was the awareness that the true education of Christians on and off the pilgrim road is in caring for the mind, spirit, and body of people. While my professional background in educating Christians focused on the mind and spirit aspects of formation, I never considered the centrality of the body in learning the ways of Christ until this pilgrimage. These three aspects of life were made better known in acts of hospitality. Throughout that first pilgrimage and all pilgrimages ever since, I am overwhelmed by the unexpected hospitality of the various communities of faith I meet along with the way that remind me of the centrality of educating and nurturing the mind, spirit, and body of people in congregational life. For example, every night on the pilgrimage there was an opportunity for us to learn about the history of the communities of faith we were staying in overnight, in which one’s mind was sure to be stimulated. Our spirits were fed daily in the rituals of morning, midday, and evening prayer, along with praying the Angelus at 12 noon and 6 p.m. And our spirits and stomachs were fed at least three times a day at breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals as we both prayed prayers of blessings upon those who fed us and were fed well by those who opened their churches and schools to our rag-tag group of pilgrims. Mind, spirit, body: all welcomed, all fed, and all ready to serve others in the name of Jesus, the Pilgrim God, whose example we were following.
Christine Pohl reminds us that hospitality is a combination of love of God and love of neighbor, whether or not that neighbor is a stranger or not, since this love we practice—brotherly/sisterly love—is a practice that we learn from the God who first loved us. It is when a person crosses a threshold like a door that the act of hospitality takes front and center stage in our communities of faith, because the very threshold is a portal into which one enters our hearts, minds, and bodies as members of the body of Christ.
Now that I find myself once again serving a congregation, in the pilgrimage of everyday life, hospitality is a cornerstone of the work of our congregation as we learn and re-learn the act of welcoming one another. Of course, what helped me the most in learning this gift was being the recipient of welcome along the many pilgrimages I’ve been on, where I was the stranger and taken in and made to feel at home, whether I was in Cambodia or Thailand, Israel or Egypt, Scotland, England, or Ireland. Welcome or hospitality teams in our congregations and parishes are critical in not only welcoming but also in the act of assisting people to become assimilated into the life of a congregation that is always on the “go.” Nurturing each person’s minds, bodies, and spirits is a great opportunity for us to re-learn the life-long commitment we take when baptizing people, welcoming people who were once a stranger to us, who have no been received into the one holy catholic and apostolic church through baptism. For God has made them members of the household of God, to share with us in the priesthood of Christ. In the act of Holy Communion, we also re-member the one who has graciously gives us new life. When we break apart the bread and pour the cup of salvation, Christ’s presence is made known among all gathered in the name of the Holy One. Indeed, the very act of Eucharist becomes a template of hospitality that is practiced daily, whether one is on an actual pilgrimage, or the pilgrimage of every day life, where mind, spirit, and body of all God’s people are all fed.
The Rev. Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell is a pilgrim, a speaker, a writer, a teacher, a Presbyterian pastor, a parent, a partner, and a pet lover. Currently, Brett is interim head of staff at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (USA) in Portland. OR. He is a pilgrim, having written extensively on pilgrimage that includes stories from his pilgrimages from Thailand and Cambodia, to the Holy Lands, the Celtic frontiers of Ireland, Scotland, and England; along with the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, Chimayo, and pilgrimages throughout Central America. He is speaker and writer, covering issues facing people living with disabilities, religious education theory, and LGBTQ parenting in faith communities. He taught at both Duke Divinity School and NC Central University in Durham, NC. He is a dad of two wonderful young adults, and he and his partner are living bi-coastally between OR and NC.