The first church I sought shelter at was United Methodist. There were a bunch of hats on display and the only two people inside tried to sell me one. I already had one for the walk, but I humored them by trying it one on.
They offered me lemonade and asked me if I needed anything. I told them about my pilgrimage and asked if I could seek shelter at the church, even if it just meant sleeping outside. Since neither of them were in charge, they hemmed and hawed quite a bit. There wasn’t really much they could do. They mused over the idea of letting me stay there, though they said they’d have to inform the groundskeeper, who lived on the premises. They didn’t want him to freak out. Finally, they sent me down the road to a building where the church held spiritual retreats. They said that the site manager might be able to help me.
The site manager wasn’t there, but his cell number was on the door . I got him on the phone and explained my situation. He said he would like to offer me a bed, but the retreat house was totally booked. I told him I would be more than happy to sleep outside, if that was okay.
He said he could work something out and to touch base with him in a few hours. I walked back to the library, happy to have found a place to sleep on my first night.
Less than an hour later, he called me back.
“Hi, Daryl,” he said. “You know, the more I think about it, I really don’t think I can help you out tonight. The retreat house is already booked, and I’m not sure how the current guests will feel about me letting you stay there, since they’ve already reserved and paid for their spots. It just wouldn’t be fair to them, you know? I gotta think about them first. They might be upset. I’d at least have to ask them. I owe it to them to meet their needs first. So I’m sorry to flip-flop on you, but I don’t think I can help you. Maybe if I had a little bit more notice, I could. But there are other churches in the neighborhood who could help you.”
In hindsight, I should have said, “Fine. Let’s ask the retreat guests how they feel about it. I’ll even ask them myself.” But I just bit my tongue and said, “Well, thank you for trying.” He seemed so reluctant to help me, I just didn’t want to press him. “God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corin. 9:7)” and he didn’t sound very cheerful. I didn’t want to secure shelter by giving someone a guilt trip.
Tried a Presbyterian church next. No one was there but the praise band, rehearsing for Sunday service. I didn’t want to interrupt them during practice, so I sat and waited for them to enter the parking lot. They looked frightened when I approached them, so I knew I wasn’t going to find help here. I was right.
I went to the Lutheran church next door, and stumbled right into the middle of a potluck dinner being held in the courtyard. There were five adults and a baby. They all looked at me and smiled. An elderly man said to me, “From the size of that backpack you got, it looks like you’re traveling a ways!”
I knew then that I was going to be all right.
The older man was, in fact, the pastor of the church. He said I could sleep in the church courtyard if I wanted to. They invited to stay and eat with them.
“You want some watermelon?” one of them asked.
I cringed. I was only black person there.
“Maybe watermelon wasn’t the first thing you should have offered him,” a woman said, embarrassed.
I smiled at her. “I’m glad you said something,” I said. “That was a little awkward.”
“How about some chicken?” the man continued, now embarrassed as well and trying to make up for it with a joke. “It’s not fried, but…”
I sighed internally. The truth was, I know he didn’t mean any harm by offering me the watermelon. But the joke was now making it worse.
“I don’t think that’s any better,” the woman said. She turned to me, “How about some peanuts? Although that’s probably not much better either…”
“You know what?” I said, “I’m going to have some watermelon. It’s not a big deal. I like watermelon.” So I had some watermelon, as well as chicken (not fried), two hotdogs, and pineapple.
The pastor asked me why I was walking. I told him the Holy Spirit had descended into my heart and called me to walk.
“Do you know what you want to do?” he said.
“Maybe something in ministry,” I said.
“What’s your tradition?”
“United Methodist.” I said, leaving out the Buddist, Taoist, Hindu, and Gnostic influences. No need to get into that just yet.
“If you’re United Methodist, that will mean seminary.”
I nodded. “I’m also trying to understand what Jesus referred to as the ‘mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.'”
“Ah,” he said. He mentioned a book by N.T. Wright, which I believe was Surprise By Hope,
in which the author says that a Christian theology that emphasizes the afterlife actually misses the point – Christians should be working to make the world a more peaceful, loving, and just place.
That’s what a big part of my pilgrimage is about. Seeking God’s kingdom on Earth now. Jesus says several things about the kingdom – that it’s near (Matthew 3:2), that it is in our midsts or within us (Luke 17:21, depending on the translation), that it is inside us and outside us (Gospel of Thomas 3), and that it is spread out over the earth, though we can’t see it (Gospel of Thomas 113).
I don’t feel God’s kingdom every minute of every day. I can sense it a little though. I feel its potential within me and within the world around me.
As we finished eating and started cleaning, the woman who offered me the peanuts said, “I saw that movie 42 – the one with Jackie Robinson.”
“Right,” I said. “I haven’t seen it.”
“There’s this scene when he comes up to bat, and people start shouting, “Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!”
Each time she says the word, it feels like a slap. I don’t begrude her using it, because she’s quoting a line from the movie, but I still don’t like it.
“It was awful,” she said, “but I guess they had to be accurate – I mean, that’s the word people used back then…”
“They’re using that word now,” I said.
“Well…not everyone,” she said. I could hear the testiness in her voice. “I’m just confused by organizations like the NAACP. The National…Advancement….”
“The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,” I said.
“Right. ‘Colored people’ is in their title. But if you say the phrase ‘colored people’, they get upset. I don’t understand…if they don’t want to be called that, they should change the title of the organization.”
“That’s valid,” I said. “But when the organization was founded, that was the acceptable phrase. That’s the name that we all recognize. It has a reputation and is embodied with respect and legacy. Sorta like branding. It makes sense for them to keep it.”
“Mm,” she said.
Everyone left. The pastor gave me his business card and told me to show it to the security guard if the guard bothered me in the middle of the night. Before the pastor locked up the church, he let me in to use the bathroom and fill up my water bottle.
“Thank you,” I said.
“I wish I could do more for you,” he said.
“This is fine. Really. Thank you.”
I slept…okay. Ants had pretty much taken over every square inch of the courtyard, and if they weren’t attacking me from the ground, the mosquitos were attacking me from above. After moving to about four different spots throughout the course of the night, I got about 3 + hours of sleep. It got cold, but between my sleeping bag and my jacket, I managed to stay pretty warm. It was a much more comfortable night compared to the first night of my pilgrimage almost four years ago.
I woke up feeling a little rank, but well-rested. I put a hand over my heart and prayed:
“Keep going or turn back?”