“You’re not religious, are you?”
Michelle’s question took me a bit off guard as we walked together along the dew-drenched stretch of the Camino de Santiago that morning. One step after another, my feet moved onward down the road as my thoughts tumbled and tripped over one another.
“Well, I guess that depends on how you define religious,” I finally said, sounding far more hesitant than I would have liked. “I mean, I believe in what the Bible says about Jesus and that He died to save us. So if that makes me religious then I guess I am.”
Michelle nodded quietly as we continued to walk. I could almost hear my own feeble and tin-like words clattering on the ground around us. They felt hollow somehow and I desperately wanted to give them strength with a rush of more words.
But after a few days of hiking the Camino with other pilgrims, I had learned something I hope to never forget: most people don’t need a sermon.
They say The Way can be divided into three stages: The physical stage, where one scales the Pyrenees Mountains on the eastern side of Spain, the mental stage in which pilgrims battle the never-ending monotony of flat fields and town-less roads, and finally, the spiritual stage where the rolling green hills of Galicia welcome reflection. During that last stage especially, it is remarkable how quickly questions of belief, meaning, and faith bubble to the surface as pilgrims share their hearts while enduring the same sore feet, bruised bones, and bug bites.
I spent one such afternoon with a friend named Amy who didn’t necessarily agree with my view of Jesus, though she was a gracious listener. When I asked her why, she told me it was because of interactions with Christians and the church in her past that left her disenchanted and distrusting. And Amy wasn’t the only one. Time after time, I heard the same narrative from other pilgrims who were tired of the Church and the bigotry they felt it peddled.
I remembered each of their words on the morning Michelle asked me if I was religious. I wondered how many had been merely preached at, scolded, or fed cheap, scripted lines about love and joy in the face of calamity. I wondered if the Church didn’t make them feel like projects more than people. I wondered why so many felt that way about Christians and if I wasn’t part of the problem myself.
So I kept my mouth shut that morning. I decided to listen first, at times offer bits of what I believe, and simply enjoy swapping hearts with the human being next to me. Because I think there are plenty of people on this earth who have a sermon to preach. And at times they are sincerely needed. But perhaps what people need most is someone to share the trail with in this life. Someone who joyfully takes each painful step alongside his or her neighbors. And when asked why, they won’t give a sermon, they’ll just say it’s because they believe someone named Jesus already did the same for them.
Before we knew it, two hours had passed for Michelle and me and our blisters were worlds away. Earlier that morning, Michelle had limped some 7 km through tear-blurred eyes as her hiking boots tore deep scars into the back of her feet. But now her steps looked more like bounds. “I haven’t even thought of my feet for the past two hours,” she said with a grin. “You must be my Camino angel.”