Day Eighteen. Welcome.
My pensione last night was...interesting.
Imagine staying at a combination car wash, truck garage and highway restaurant for bikers. Ok, and the room was right above the garage where the trucks (I'm talking 18 wheelers) were on the lift. Once I was in the room itself it wasn't too bad, especially when the very sweet housekeeper who was in charge of the six rooms up there brought me a piece of her homemade cake, as a kind of Spanish welcome gift. It charmed me so much I almost didn't hear the car wash turning on and off through the evening.
Carlos met me outside the restaurant, and we immediately began talking about England's decision to leave the EU. Like other young people I have met in Europe, Carlos is extremely well informed about the political and economic systems in Spain and the rest of Europe, and for that matter, the US. He is concerned about what might happen in the months to come, and what kind of a future welcome he might receive as a Spaniard in England. Will it mean a return to an earlier time when you needed a visa to stay there? He mentioned that a number of his young university Spanish friends have had to move to England to find mostly low-paying service industry jobs because Spain has a 50% unemployment rate for young people. The choice that was made in Britain today has been widely reported to reflect a fear that too many immigrants are a threat to the economic health and physical security of their country.
On the Camino today we walked through very small and mostly deserted villages, but when we did see people, they were very friendly. We encountered some older men with their dogs, a man walking his cattle down the middle of the road, a young farmer whose dog rushed up to greet us as we passed his gate, and even a hungry cat. Everyone smiled and said a few words of encouragement, including some happy barks.
And then we stumbled upon a man working intently on a fairly large stone sculpture. He was carving Camino images on it--scallop shells, and a large cross. I started to take some pictures through a fence, and he noticed and invited us into his work area. Spanish folk music was playing, and his artwork was all over the place. I was fascinated and really loved what he had made. He invited us into his house, and showed us a whole bunch of other pieces he had created. We were two strangers walking by on the Camino, but he gave us his complete attention and his time. Carlos and I walked away from our encounter with him, impressed with his kindness and with the way he shared his gifts so freely with us.
And then it was time for us to part. I decided I wanted stop and stay at an Albergue (Hostal) that was staffed by volunteers from the English Confraternity of St James (donations only accepted) and Carlos decided to push himself and jump ahead to the next stop another 18 miles. What a gift to have shared the last two days with him! I think we were both a little sad, but the upcoming solo days will give us time to appreciate and digest our deep conversations. And there is the possibility that might meet again in Santiago before he flies off to his home on the Canary Islands, and I return to New York.
I arrived at the Albergue San Martine, and immediately was welcomed by two wonderful volunteer couples from England and Scotland who run the house for the pilgrims. It is clear that they take this hospitality very seriously, and I felt like I was being invited into a very warm family. They showed me the beds, the place to make my dinner, the all-important showers and toilets, and the area where I could wash and dry my dirty laundry. They also showed a lot of sincere interest in me, and freely shared details about their lives here and back in England. They were, of course, very taken with the events about the EU today, and interestingly, the two couples were on opposite sides regarding the vote. They welcomed other pilgrims after me--a young woman doctor from Hungary, two young women from Germany, a man from Austria and a young man from Poland---and then gave us a tour of the 13th century church that is just down the street. They said a few prayers and lit a candle there that the rest of our Camino journey would be blessed and fruitful. I was very impressed with the way we were truly welcomed with charity, as Christians are meant to treat one another.
Which made me reflect on the Church as I and many others have often experienced it. It is more than unfortunate that for many, the Church does not feel very welcoming. Perhaps it is the result of its size as an institution, and its need for conformity and discipline, which often results in a lack of openness to the movement of the Spirit. In Spain, there are many people who no longer find life in the Church. That is increasingly true for young people in America as well. For too many, it does not feel that the Church welcomes everyone equally, but instead judges you as you stand before its entrance. This, the institution that it is supposed to represent the merciful love of Jesus, the body of Christ imbued with the Holy Spirit. Perhaps not unlike those who voted in Britain today, fear can sometimes win out over trust in Divine love.
As I get ready to go to bed tonight, I give thanks for the gift of welcome I have received all day on the Camino, and I pray that I may be able to extend that welcome in my life.