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Some Pilgrims Seek Balance, Others Seek Refuge

I’m fascinated by pilgrimage. For me, the term connotes earnestness, persistence, solitude, inspiration and a touch of holiness.
It’s rising above the mundane, shedding the constraints of banality. Pilgrimage is both dogged pursuit and quiet surrender.

It’s estimated that more than 100 million people go on pilgrimage journeys annually.

They leave their everyday lives for a week or longer to pursue an elusive goal of peace, balance and connection.

They come from diverse backgrounds and engage in pilgrimage for a variety of reasons, but in every case it’s a pause in their normal lives.

I know several people who are currently walking the Camino de Santiago – a roughly 800-kilometer route through Spain and France, which has made me reflect on a pilgrim of another sort whom I met a few weeks ago.

He was born in Somalia and lived there until he was 8 years old when he left his home and his father (his mother died when he was a toddler).

I imagine he traveled with a group of relatives and neighbors, drawn together by desperation and faint hope.

He arrived at a refugee camp in Kenya after a long, arduous trek – 800 kilometers of determination and deprivation.

Most people might not conceive of the flight of a refugee as a pilgrimage, but I do. This young boy then spent 12 years in the refugee camp before winning the proverbial lottery.

His name was posted on the camp board listing those who had been selected by the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to be sponsored by a foreign government to go to a promised land.

He arrived in Canada a few months ago, and his pilgrimage continues as he learns how to live in another country, culture and language.

I can’t help but think about the contrast between walking 800 kilometers on the Camino de Santiago and walking 800 kilometers from Mogadishu, Somalia, to Dadaab, Kenya.

Both are pilgrimages and those who walk those well-worn paths are pilgrims.

Some are well clothed and well fed, sleeping each night in modest comfort and security.

Others have the clothes on their back, grateful for whatever scraps of food they can muster. They walk in the company of other displaced souls, with only their prayers for security. The risks along this refugee highway are many.

There are many differences between what I’ll call the “pilgrims of privilege” and the “refugee pilgrims,” but they are all pawns of powers beyond their jurisdiction.

They are buffeted by strong winds of anxiety, fear and dissonance and are propelled by a glimmer of hope – hope that the life behind them is not all there is.

Refugees flee oppression, persecution or deprivation: political, economic, physical, spiritual and ecological (“climate refugees”).

They leave intolerable situations in search of refuge – a safe place, a sanctuary from the brutal forces that beset them.

Since its inception in 1950, the UNHCR has helped an estimated 50 million refugees from 126 countries start new lives in foreign lands.

These uprooted, desperate people leave family, friends and all that is familiar behind.

Those that make it to U.N. refugee camps are the lucky ones among the millions who are displaced with no safe haven.

It’s easy to imagine that these refugees are pawns of forces beyond their control, having fallen through the cracks of a globalized economic world system with its “winners” and “losers.”

But what of the 100 million who voluntarily embark on short-term pilgrimages?

I see evidence of soul-sapping alienation everywhere I look. These volunteer pilgrims come from countries that have generally high standards of living.

In many cases, they have everything money can buy, but it’s not enough – and from a global perspective it’s too much.

Though our consumer addictions are stripping the planet of its magnificent resources, money doesn’t buy happiness and material things don’t satisfy our deepest yearnings.

The undertow of a consumer culture is often too powerful, even for the reasonably prudent, thoughtful and caring.

A pilgrimage journey promises a chance to recalibrate. Many pilgrims look for a chance to find a different, more intuitive and authentic path, which circumvents the riptides and undertows of a globalized world on the brink of absolute insanity.

The fact is we’re all pilgrims if we’re seeking a better path, even if our feet never leave the community where we’re born.

My friend on the Camino de Santiago understands this. In a recent post about her pilgrimage, here’s what she had to say:

“Wherever you are, moment by moment and step by step, with every paper you write, phone call you make or demand you meet, you also are on the Camino; leaning on the strong arms of God for guidance, wisdom and strength!!”

“Sometimes the road is flat and endless; other times steep and rugged,” she continued. “But you keep going! To you all I say ‘Buen Camino’ (Have a good walk) and ‘Que Dios te bendiga!’ (May God bless you!).”

Lois Mitchell is the Justice Initiatives coordinator for Canadian Baptist Ministries (CBM), the director of Public Witness for the Convention of Atlantic Baptist Churches (CABC) and the director of International Studies at St. Stephen’s University in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Canada. You can follow her on Twitter @cbmlois. A longer version of this article first appeared on the CBM Justice blog and is used with permission.