Journeys That Transform

{This is the last of twelve posts in my Here Goes Nothing Guest Blog Series.  This article was written by my dear friend, Nate Bacon. We lived three blocks away from Nate and his wife Jenny while we were in Guatemala. Their family and their work through a mission organization called InnerCHANGE have shaped our lives immensely. Nate and Jenny were the ones who advised us to get to know our neighbors when we moved back to the States. I completely blame them for Here Goes Nothing. I want to give this article a huge introduction, but I'll just say this: Nate walked 150 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border to Los Angeles in order to better understand the journey that immigrants go through when fleeing to the United States. And now I'm going to let him do the rest of the talking.}

{This is the last of twelve posts in my Here Goes Nothing Guest Blog Series. 

This article was written by my dear friend, Nate Bacon. We lived three blocks away from Nate and his wife Jenny while we were in Guatemala. Their family and their work through a mission organization called InnerCHANGE have shaped our lives immensely. Nate and Jenny were the ones who advised us to get to know our neighbors when we moved back to the States. I completely blame them for Here Goes Nothing.

I want to give this article a huge introduction, but I'll just say this: Nate walked 150 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border to Los Angeles in order to better understand the journey that immigrants go through when fleeing to the United States. And now I'm going to let him do the rest of the talking.}

Nearly 30 years ago, a group of nine recent Stanford grads, who had all become friends through the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, moved into the Mission District of San Francisco together. 

Our urban plunge was envisioned as a one-year community experiment in a Latino immigrant neighborhood where refugees were arriving in droves to escape the horrors of civil war in Central America. Little did I know this would be the impetus of a life-long personal journey of accompaniment, through deep pain, into unexpected joy, and towards transformative hope. 

My grandfather used to admonish us to not criticize others until we had ‘walked a mile in their moccasins’. The move to San Francisco became an invitation to do precisely that. Mary Lathrap’s famous poem expresses this poignantly:

Pray, don't find fault with the man that limps,

Or stumbles along the road.

Unless you have worn the moccasins he wears,

Or stumbled beneath the same load.

 

There may be tears in his soles that hurt

Though hidden away from view.

The burden he bears placed on your back

May cause you to stumble and fall, too.

 

Just walk a mile in his moccasins

Before you abuse, criticize and accuse.

If just for one hour, you could find a way

To see through his eyes, instead of your own muse.

 

I believe you'd be surprised to see

That you've been blind and narrow minded, even unkind.

 

This journey of proximity offered me new lenses.

No longer were these a removed species of ‘immigrants’ and ‘illegals’, to be analyzed, scrutinized, and criticized with white friends over a Starbuck’s macchiato. They were now my neighbors and my friends. And they would eventually become my family on many levels. 

Like Saul on the road to Damascus, it can take time for the scales to fall from our eyes, as God {with Aslan-like claws} peels back the layers of prejudice, racism, and simple ignorance, to pare us down to our truest selves: healing our blindness and granting us new vision.  It requires ‘walking in another’s moccasins’, so as to feel with one’s feet and entire being, the pains, perspectives, hopes and dreams of the other. 

How else can we ‘love our neighbor as our self’? 

I soon found myself working at a homeless shelter for Central American refugees, where every evening I opened a door and welcomed in the stranger. 

Night after night I listened--as I lay side-by-side on a mat next to recent arrivals from places like El Salvador and Guatemala--to the stories of what brought them northward. I heard tales of extreme poverty, and the horrors of the civil wars that were raging there. It was a whole new world, filled with pain and hope. My new friends recounted the terror of death squads, torture, disappearances, and bloody, brutal massacres. When I was told that the government of my country was responsible for training and funding most of this military madness, I did not want to believe it. Some truths take time to accept. We prefer the false assurances of the blinders we bear.

Yet, in addition to the heavy crosses my Central American friends carried, I was also blown away by the inexplicable faith, perseverance, and even joy, borne by these unwitting pilgrims. My heart was burning, as I slowly recognized the presence of Jesus in these new-found friends.

As in the Emmaus Road encounter, Jesus delights to surprise us in the person of the stranger, as we journey together, sharing our deepest disappointments, and our highest aspirations. The word ‘companion’ literally means ‘one who breaks bread with another’. Like the disciples, whose eyes were opened as they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, I too have encountered Jesus in my companions along the Way, and they have become my teachers, opening the scriptures to me. 

Who would know that many years later, a pair of shoes I had given to my brother-in-law Mauricio would literally walk across the Texas desert, on his feet, as he made the long, treacherous trek northward from Central America to provide for his family? 

Who would know that God would then call him to join InnerChange as a missionary while in the US, and that four years later he would return to Guatemala to lead a new ministry in his own home town? Including ministry with kids who desperately try to make it to the States, but get caught and deported from Mexico? Jesus knew all of this, and Jesus was well acquainted with this path. As an infant he too crossed the desert into a foreign land, when his parents carried him into exile in Egypt in order to preserve his life. 

These wild overlapping trails would ultimately lead my wife Jenny and I to move to Guatemala ourselves. 

Last fall, as if to weave more tightly the threads of our journeys, Mauricio and I walked 150 miles together in solidarity with migrants and refugees at the invitation of friends from CCDA {Christian Community Development Association}. 

Inspired by the historic pilgrimage path in Spain {“Camino de Santiago”}, our pilgrimage was entitled “The Camino del Inmigrante” {“The Way of the Immigrant”}.

The 12-day journey to Los Angeles began at the border wall between Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, California.  This was a deeply moving experience as we prayed and worshipped under the intimidating shadows of the wall.  We then walked down to the beach and planted crosses in the ground to remember the more than 11,000 men, women, and children who have died trying to cross the border since that wall was built.  Ironically, the place is called ‘Friendship Park’ {a memory and a hope}. 

The most emotional moment by far, however, was when we were given special permission to pass one wall and actually press ourselves up against the tightly-woven steel grate which scarcely allowed fingertips to touch one another. In this manner, we prayed with those on the other side. I couldn’t help but think back to my childhood on the US Canadian border in Blaine, Washington, where a beautiful open park allows visitors to freely cross back and forth across the line. The monument there is a fabulous “Peace Arch” which bears inscriptions such as “Children of a Common Mother” and “May these gates never be closed”.  What a contrast to a structure that essentially communicates the opposite, as if to say “May these gates never be opened”. 

As we shed prayerful tears together through the grate of the border divide, I felt I was standing before a modern day wailing wall - a stark reminder of a Temple that is incomplete, a family divided {like so many who come here to touch the fingers of their loved ones}, a Body dismembered, a humanity that is ruptured and wounded by its inability to overcome its rivalries and divisions. And yet the tears we shed as we touched through that wall, longing for restoration and an end to the ‘dividing wall of hostility’ {no longer Jew nor Gentile, Male or Female, Master or Slave, Citizen or Immigrant} felt like precious droplets of healing grace. 

As Mother Teresa says, “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be incomplete without that missing drop”.  I believe that in the divine economy our prayers and tears changed something in the universe that day.

Unlike the literal desert, our path took us through some of the wealthier beach areas of Southern California. 

Yet all along the way, we encountered immigrants who were working in yards, restaurants, construction, cleaning, etc. It was inspiring to talk to them, as almost all were shocked and grateful to hear of our purpose. As we walked, talked, learned, and slept together on church floors, our merry band of 60 Christians bonded together as a family.

Each day, however, a few of the members of our group would receive a spine-chilling text message: “You didn’t make it. You died in the desert.” Anyone receiving that message would continue to walk, but do so in silence. No conversation with others on the Camino. Though simple and artificial, the evening debriefs revealed just how powerfully this affected everyone, both those who ‘died’ and those who walked near them. Tears were shed every night, as this brought home the reality of so many immigrants who never make it to their destination alive.

For Mauricio, this was a painful, and yet healing experience. 

Having traversed the desert 15 years ago, one of the most traumatic moments occurred when two women became too sick and weak to continue. The others had helped and even carried them, but a moment came when they could go no further, and the guide said they had to decide, either stay with the women, or keep going. They left the women behind, where they most certainly died, and that ache has remained in Mauricio’s heart ever since. 

This time it was different. 

In God’s graciousness, he was near a female member of the group twice when they received the death-text message.  It was an opportunity for healing. Both times, he resolved NOT to abandon anyone again, even in a simulation. He accompanied the two of them, on separate days, walking and praying in silence. The wounds were opened again, and God brought a healing salve. All were moved to tears when he shared with the group.

Personally, I was a bit over-confident, imagining that the physical challenge of 150 miles on hard pavement would not be too great. 

I was wrong.  On one of the longest days in particular {18 miles} I found myself in excruciating agony. I literally didn’t know if I was going to make it. The front part of my ankle was swollen and brought shooting pains with every step. Several blisters added to the misery, and all I could think of was “Lord, please don’t let me become another statistic!”. 

Interestingly, that was the only morning in which all of the present and future InnerChange staff set out walking together.  In the end, I was advancing so slowly that only Annie {from our Los Angles team} stuck with me, sharing practically her whole life story, as I groaned my way forward. This was my only lifeline. I could hardly speak with all the pain I felt, but because of Annie and the InnerChangers, I was able to make it to the end of the day.

Afterwards, I reflected on that experience. Here we were, members of InnerChange, a covenanted community, journeying together, and not abandoning one another when the going got rough. Isn’t that what covenant is all about?  It immediately brought to mind my marriage to Jenny. She being from Guatemala, and me from the States, our covenant relationship unites our families across borders. Being family, and covenanting our relationship meant that no matter what, we would always be linked together, and never abandon one another, even when the journeying got difficult. 

As I pondered this with a wide-angle view, I suddenly saw that this is our call as Christians as well. 

We are our sister’s and brother’s keeper. We are called to love our neighbors to the south, and neighbors to the north. On God’s map, there are only bridges across these barriers, uniting and reconciling in Christ, what the world would rend asunder. We cannot abandon one another. Regardless of political boundaries, culture divides, and language differences, we are family because of Christ. 

Though racism, ideologies, and prejudice might raise their ugly heads and seek to construct ever new ‘dividing walls of hostility’, the Cross would cast them down, as we see and affirm the divine presence in one another, drop our rivalries and clenched fists, and embrace as members of one another, remembering who we are, being forged again into the One Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, living stones built upon the rejected Cornerstone, restoring the walls of a Temple where all have their place, vs. a dividing barrier of tears longing for completion.

On that first journey, Mauricio had worn the dress shoes that I had given him, because he was told that they would make him look less like an immigrant. 

The only problem was that within the first hour of a four day journey, his feet were covered in painful blisters!  On this second journey, those same shoes hung from his backpack the entire time as we sojourned together as brothers and companions on the Way. He had walked in my shoes, and I was now walking in his, trekking northward in solidarity with all those who make this pilgrimage to escape violence and poverty, and to bring life and sustenance to their families and loved ones. 

The arc of my life had taken me to an immigrant neighborhood, to a shelter for refugees, to a food distribution for recent arrivals, to a tiny room in a flat filled with immigrant families. Inasmuch as a privileged gringo could do, I had walked for many years in the shoes of my sisters and brothers. They had become family and taught me more than I could ever imagine about what it meant to be human, and what it meant to be a follower of the forsaken Christ. We could never abandon one another. We discovered that we were related and that made all the difference. 

As family, inasmuch as we open our hearts to the Stranger among us, we can look forward with eagerness to that Day when all divisions are dissolved, and our sisters and brothers welcome us into eternal dwellings with the very words of Christ:

“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…”

 

Grace and Peace and Buen Camino!

Nate

 

Bio: Nate Bacon, and his wife Jenny, live and serve as missionaries with InnerChange {a Christian order among the poor} in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Their daughter Gabriela is a social worker in the Latino community in Chicago, and their son Nathanael is in 10th grade. Still crazy for Christ after all these years. {www.innerchange.org}

Bio: Nate Bacon, and his wife Jenny, live and serve as missionaries with InnerChange {a Christian order among the poor} in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Their daughter Gabriela is a social worker in the Latino community in Chicago, and their son Nathanael is in 10th grade. Still crazy for Christ after all these years. {www.innerchange.org}