Last week, I spent a week in San Diego leading a pilgrimage for two churches from Atlanta, GA. The organization I work for had never done a trip to this part of Southern California, so I arrived a day before the team and set off on exploring the area surrounding our hostel.
As I exited my hostel to wander the streets of the Gaslamp Quarter, I was instantly confronted with something my plush, quarantined North Dallas life intentionally avoids.
Amongst the bustling hipsters bar hopping in between World Cup games were an incredible amount of people who were without a home. Interestingly enough, very few of them pandered to the sentiments of those living the high life. Some were sleeping on the streets in the middle of the day, but most sorted through the garbage cans, hoping, wishing, to find something of use. Occasionally, a kind soul would slip in their hands a dollar bill, or slide across the counter a much needed cup of water or coffee. But, they tended (but not always) to cling to the solitary life.
But me…I kept my head down and acted as if I didn’t see them or hear them. I had an agenda to keep.
Three or so years ago, a man used my desire to please God and my theology to swindle me of $500 and my compassion. This embarrassing moment became present in my consciousness with each encounter on the streets this past week. While the fear of material loss wasn’t necessarily controlling my actions, the compassion and love which led me to initially engage with the swindler dissipated a bit in my present self. No longer did I meet those in need with the dignity of their humanity. Instead, they were a threat to my comfort and the status quo of my life.
Traveling, and in particular pilgrimage, confronts you. We find ourselves as a character in a strange story and in a strange town – situated in the midst of a violent Flannery O’Connor story. As Gregory Wolfe describes her characters, we “are the most obtuse and the most prideful, are the isolated, would-be intellectuals who believe their genius puts them beyond good and evil.” As we recognize this in ourselves on pilgrimage, we quickly realize this is our perpetual state of being — that something is amiss in our day-to-day living at home.
These moments on the streets, these moments in other places and other worlds, and oftentimes with the “least of these”, confronts us and purposes a challenge. Am I going to remain obtuse and prideful, or will I allow the pain of grace to transform and shape me? The choice is really between two things: what we think will bring us happiness and peace and what God thinks will bring us happiness and peace.
In a fallen world, afflicted by evil and stupidity, happiness can never be a gauge of fidelity to God – and our own deepest needs. To think otherwise is to confuse happiness, with its bourgeois connotations of comfort and freedom from any burdens, with blessedness. – Wolfe
This blessedness occurs through confrontations which necessitate a decision in those moments — the choice between remaining unchanged or being set on a path of ascent — even when it might not feel as such. While pilgrimage creates space for blessedness, our very life, in all activities and opportunities, is pilgrimage. We are not simply “blessed” and nothing more takes place. We are continually and perpetually being blessed, made more and more into the image of the Father, through a series of confrontations – violent acts of Grace – stirring our hearts to be dramatically molded into something much different and much better.