Mill Valley, CA
It was 6 AM. Church didn’t start until 10:30. And it was still raining.
I waited under the church’s awning for about two hours until the idea of waiting in a coffee shop finally made its way into my addled brain.
I walked into a coffee shop and breathed a loud sigh of relief. A man looked up from this paper and stared at me in annoyance. I bought a mint tea, sat down, an defrosted.
Closer to 10:30, I went back to the church. It had stopped raining. The moment I walked in, everyone greeted me. They saw my bag and walking stick and asked me where I was going. When I told them about the walk, they immediately invited me to a community lunch after the service.
Once the music started, I began to weep. I tried to rise to my feet, but I couldn’t. I tried to sing, but my throat was too closed up. All I could do was clasp my hands together and sob.
It was a good service. It was Earth Day, and the sermon was about how God gave the earth to human beings so that we could take care of it. The pastor had a really great sense of humor. We were constantly laughing throughout the service.
Afterwards, I went to the church lunch. They have it every fourth Sunday. It’s for the homeless and anyone else who wants to come.
This meal was prepared and served by volunteers from the church and the local high school. There were pasta noodles, lasagna, dumplings, chicken, different types of rice, roasted vegetables, salads, fruit, different kinds of sandwiches, cookies, pie, ice cream…it was a feast and it was all delicious.
People kept encouraging me to eat and take food with me for the road. I had good conversation with several members of the congregation and with a recently retired pastor. Thought about asking for a place to stay that night, but it didn’t feel right. I’d already been given so much in terms of food and a general raising of my spirit – to ask for more would have been grasping.
Leonard offered to drive from Sausalito to Mill Valley, pick me up, and then take me to Corte Madera. So after lunch, I got a ride from him and his fiance Sarah.
“So Corte Madera, huh?” said Leonard.
“Yep!” I said.
“You sure that’s as far as you want me to take you? Because it’s literally the next exit.”
“You want me to take you to San Rafael?”
Once we reached San Rafael, Sarah told Leonard to find a certain street where “all the young people hang out” in hopes that I could meet someone that would let me crash with them.
“Hey, why don’t I take him to the marshes!” said Leonard. “He could meet some of the guys down there that I know!”
“You don’t know any guys at the marshes,” said Sarah.
“Yes, I do. I know a couple.”
“But those are all homeless people. He doesn’t want to hang out with them!”
“Yeah, but he’s homeless too!”
“No, he’s not. You know what I mean.”
“I’m houseless,” I offered.
“See?” said Leonard. “He’s houseless.”
“But it’s a marsh!” said Sarah. “It’s damp and wet. He doesn’t want to sleep in a damp and wet place.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” said Leonard. “Probably a bad idea.”
Leonard offered to help me out with some bus fare, but I felt I needed to keep walking for now. They dropped me off at the library. I checked my email, tried to find a cheap dive motel (no luck) and headed out to find shelter at a church.
I’m in downtown San Rafael; lots of cops and churches with “No Trespassing” signs. I walked into a Catholic mission (tourist site) and looked at a depiction of the 14 stages of the Cross. I take note of how people tried to ease Christ’s suffering on his way to Calvary – offering him water, wiping his face, carrying the cross part of the way for him. But none of them could save him from his ultimate fate: crucifixion. Of course, he does rise from the dead three days later, but to get there, he had to walk the Via Dolorosa.
I made my way to an Episcopal church and saw a bluebird on a gate near the entrance. I smiled. The official bird of my pilgrimage, a sign of hope and happiness.
The door to the church was unlocked. I walked into a huge waiting area, saw a set of stairs and a comfy couch.
“Hello?” I yelled. No response.
I walked around the building. There was no one there. I sat on the couch, not sure what to do. Was this Providence? A free place to crash? I prayed, but the only response I got was to rest.
I so sat there. Waiting. Resting. Hoping someone would show up.
After waiting about ten minutes, I decided I wasn’t comfortable being there without having permission. Sleeping outside a church is one thing. Sleeping inside it without the go-ahead is something else.
I called the church to see if I could get a contact number from the office voicemail. I lucked out and got the pastor’s number.
“Hi, is this the pastor?”
“Yes. Who is this?”
“My name is Daryl. I’m on a faith walk. I started in San Francisco and am on my way to Mt. Shasta. I was looking for sanctuary tonight, as I haven’t slept in a while and am pretty tired. But I saw that your church is totally unlocked, and I didn’t feel right about resting here or being inside without calling you first.”
Well, thank you, Daryl. That was very responsible of you to call me.”
“You’re welcome,” I said.
And then the call was disconnected.
I stared at my phone. Did he just hang up on me?
No. He wouldn’t do that. There’s no way he’d do that.
I tried calling him back. Busy signal. I tried him again. He answered this time.
“Hi,” I said. “We got disconnected and I wasn’t sure if it was by accident or if you were just done with the conversation.” (I said it much more politely than how it reads on paper/a computer screen)
“So Daryl,” he said, “Was the door WIDE OPEN?”
“Nope,” I said, “It was just unlocked.”
“That’s strange,” he said. “I was the last one there and I’m usually good about locking up. In any case, thank you for calling. As far as staying overnight though, that’s just not possible. We have pre-school here in the morning, and we just can’t have someone sleeping here overnight.”
“I see,” I said.
“Have you tried looking at shelters?” He started to list some.
“You know,” I said, “I based this walk on Matthew 6:33, and I only want to receive aid which is freely given. I make an exception when it comes to churches, because their stated mission is to help the weary. I have nothing against shelters. I believe they provide a necessary and valuable resource to people who need places to sleep, but the one time I went to one to try to find a bed, there was a sort of cold, ruthless efficiency to it all. I didn’t like it. I don’t want to receive help from someone because they’re being paid to help me. I want to receive help from people who feel a true motivation from their heart.”
“I understand,” he said, “and I wish we could accommodate a pilgrim as earnest as yourself, but with the kind of world we live in today, it’s just not possible. You’re more than welcome to stay for a while; there’s a retreat that’s happening at the church later, and I told the folks running it that you would be there for a bit. But you can’t stay the night.”
After we hung up, I sat back down on the couch and began to cry. I couldn’t believe it. It seemed so unfair. It wasn’t so much being told, “No.” It was the blanket, impersonal mistrust that went along with it.
“Why, God?” I prayed. “Why? I just want to sleep. Why can’t anyone trust me?” I felt the spirits wrap their arms around me, comforting me, lending me their strength and love.
I decided that this whole debacle had been a test of my integrity. If I had just slept there without warning anyone – especially the people already on their way – the consequences might have been disastrous.
I was going to have to get used to this kind of mistrust, even if it was undeserved.
I looked at my map and saw that there was a cemetery in north San Rafael. I heard that Peace Pilgrim used to sleep in cemeteries. She said they were very peaceful.
That’s what I’d do. I’d sleep in a cemetery.
I was no longer sad. Now I was angry. But my anger fueled my determination to continue. I made use of the bathroom, washing my face and some clothes, putting on some deodorant, and brushing my teeth. As I laced up my boots, I looked at myself in the mirror. It’d been a bad night, but I didn’t look too worse for wear. I’d be okay. I put on my hat and smiled at myself.
You’re the Mad Griot, remember?
I left the church right as the retreat people arrived. They were on the phone with the pastor, and when I told them who I was, they informed the pastor that I was leaving now.
On my way to the cemetery, I passed a Thai-Laos Christian congregation. At this point, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask. Everyone was really friendly; they were finishing up dinner, so they offered me fish, rice, and vegetables. They called the pastor who ran the space to see if I could sleep there, but I was denied because people have vandalized the place in the past. I was disappointed, but was still very grateful for the food and fellowship. One of the men I was talking with asked me if I had a Bible. I said, “No,” and within minutes, they presented me with a small one called “The Backpacker’s Bible”, which was kind of perfect.
A couple of kids asked why I was walking. I considered my answer, and then said, “I’m seeking the kingdom of God.”
“How does walking help with that?” one of them asked.
“Well, I meet people and have experiences – some good, some challenging – and each interaction I have teaches me a little bit more about how to be in the kingdom. What the kingdom really means.”
Silence. Then one of them said, “So basically you’re like a modern-day Jonah.”
The guy I was sitting with and I exchanged looks, then stared back at the kid.
“What?” I said.
“I said that you’re basically like a modern-day Jonah.”
“Why Jonah in particular?” I said.
The kid just shrugged.
“I hope I’m not Jonah,” I said. “I don’t want to get swallowed by a whale. But I guess we’re all called to have the faith of Jonah, right?”
The kid nodded and ran off.
I kept heading north, passed two churches, but decided to keep walking.
A guy on a bike asked me how I was doing and if I needed any money. I was really touched. Honestly, he looked like he was in worse shape than I was, but I was biased. Maybe we looked the same. Anyways, I thanked him for his offer but told him I was all right. He smiled at me and pedaled off.
I finally reached the cemetery, but it was all locked up. No way in but to scale the fence, and I wasn’t feeling that adventurous.
I wandered around a mall complex and scoped out places to sleep. I saw two cop cars roll by me though I tried my best to remain unseen. I was sure they spotted me and would drive back around and question me. I steeled myself for a confrontation (can you tell I’m frightened by cops?). A minute passed, and I walked away, trying to stay close to buildings and out of sight. I felt like Frodo fleeing the Ring-wraiths.
I finally came upon a ziggurat-shaped structure with trees and vegetation on every level and some weird building complex at the top. I climbed up onto the first level, found a tree and set up camp underneath it. I didn’t bother with a tarp, because I thought it would make me more visible, so I just threw down my mattress pad and sleeping bag. I was pretty close to the road and was afraid that the sound of the cars driving by would keep me up, but I ended up sleeping without much trouble, and I woke up in the morning feeling fairly rested.
All’s well that ends well.