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A week of journeying on foot to WYD in Rio brought the Gospel alive for me in surprising ways

In the week leading up to World Youth Day, their large-scale event called the MAGIS Experience was a unique opportunity for members of worldwide Jesuit universities to spread throughout Brazil and engage in various spiritual-based experiments deeply tied into Brazilian culture. As a campus minister at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, I was to accompany—along with a Jesuit priest—six students to MAGIS and WYD. A student and I were assigned the experiment of a pilgrimage, walking somewhere around 100 kilometers – and that was about all we knew.

I had trepidation. Lots of it. Fear of the unknown and unanswered questions. Is it safe? Where will we sleep? How will we carry our bags? The exhortation “Be not afraid” felt quite meaningless. A week in rural Bahia in Brazil? How could the Jesuits even be allowed to cook up a concept? Why did I not have any say in being placed in this situation? This was my life we are talking about here!

But there we were, bouncing along on a five-hour bus ride out of Salvador in northeast Brazil, evidently on the way to a place called Capim Grosso. None of this was very clear to any us. And whoever were these other people? Some other Americans from Marquette, Loyola Chicago and Fordham. A group from Argentina and Uruguay. And folks from an island called Mauritius? Yes, the Jesuits knew how to get around even as far back as when they arrived in Brazil 400 years ago. But I didn’t want to be impressed; I wanted to be comfortable.

The alternating landscapes of flatlands and hills made me sleepy and detached. A week in the middle of nowhere and still no details of where we would be laying our sleeping bags that very night. Clearly I was thinking in human terms and not as God does. But with each bump we got closer to our destination, and the beginning of our destiny. I struggled to keep awake reading Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio on my Nook.

The bus dropped us at the first town. We milled around silently colliding into each other with our hiking backpacks. Introductions had not been made; we’d be piecing this puzzle one kilometer at a time. We were outside the one-room school in a village called Pedras Altas, high-pitched Portuguese coming from inside and our cohort slowly surrounded by curious townspeople. Someone finally somehow communicated to us to drop our bags on the porch and go inside. I saw it all as chaos—only later did I understand it to be it excitement. There was clapping and smiles from leathered, weathered faces. Dancing eyes and soft hands.

I entered the school to singing schoolchildren who were members of the town’s Catholic youth group, and instinctively turned to shake hands with the first person inside the doorway. He reached his hand out; he was a small man with Down’s Syndrome. My heart skipped a beat. The children’s song was about glory to God. A lunch buffet of rice, beans, meat, salad, potatoes, pasta—heaps of it—awaited us. We crowded in and had no choice but to rub elbows with the townspeople and our fellow pilgrims.

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After eating and taking a brief siesta, we were ushered down the dirt road and around the corner to the small church for what appeared to be a prayer service. Padre Xavier led a blessing; the townspeople raised their hands over us. The Jesuit scholastic from Fordham teared up. And then we were off. An elderly man continued to sing into the microphone of the church as we walked up the road. 

But we weren’t walking alone. The children and people from Pedras Altas walked with us as we neared the outskirts toward a seemingly endless path that stretched towards the endless Brazilian blue sky. You don’t see skies like that on this side of the world. The ignorance, the trepidation, the discomfort was slowly blowing up, like a gradual rumbling. The earthquake was getting bigger. How long would they keep walking with us? I looked back. The man with Down’s trailed behind, his arms waving back and forth, the grin never gone. Someone had given him a MAGIS hat. 

They crossed the main road with us as a truck roared past. And they kept walking. 

“Stay with us, Lord,” said the Emmaus disciples nearly two thousand years ago. And here I was echoing on a golden Monday to these fellow companions: “Stay with us.” 

Stay with us. I didn’t want it to end. Braying donkeys announcing this wave of peregrinos had finally arrived. The scholastic had won over the youth group through their mutual knowledge of Adele lyrics. 

Dusk was falling and flashlights brought us to the next town, Camboeiro. A bus rumbled up shortly afterwards. The Jesuits had coordinated it perfectly with the communities. We said a rather unexpectedly intense goodbye to the people of Pedras Altas, our friends and companions for only a few hours, but the special bond of this unity cemented. There would never be a week like this again.

Under the glaring light of a single fluorescent we joined with our new hosts in a circle and the Argentinians and Mauritians led rounds of children games to delighted squeals and pleasant bewilderment. That night, our first night in rural Bahia, the men lodged in the chapel after each country reflected under the guidance of the Examen. By Tuesday, with the Camboeirans journeying with us to the next village, there was a happiness not felt since childhood summers. There's something about journeying towards something, together. 

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At the third town, I asked an Argentinian Jesuit for an impromptu administering of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It was the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. We sat outside the chapel on the dirt under the shade of the tree where pilgrims had hung their laundry to dry. John 1:48 was not lost on me at that moment: “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” The Jesuit advised that I ask for Mary’s protection and guidance on the pilgrimage. Each morning we would begin that day’s walk in silence, each praying a grace for that day. When I detected some peregrinos fingering their rosary beads and each town shouting “Viva Nossa Senhor Aparecida!” for the patroness of Brazil, there was no doubt this was a Marian pilgrimage with Christ walking among us, around us, in the towns left behind and the places still to discover.

The amount of laughter and joking in spite of the bug bites, itching and eventual pulled muscles led me to think about what kind of laughter Jesus must have had. Was it deep? Did he put his head back and slap his knee? Because clearly, if the Americans, Argentinians, Uruguayans and Mauritians got this close in a week, could you imagine the bonds formed by Jesus, the twelve apostles and the other disciples in three years? So close and so transformative it brings understanding to how those ragtag pilgrims traveling from pueblo to pueblo—Galilee, Capernaum, Bethany, Tyre and Sidon to eventually Jerusalem—would go to Spain, Turkey, Africa, Rome and die doing so, bringing down empires and causing a revolution because of it.

The hospitality and generosity of the people who walked with us and housed us caused me to think about the graciousness Jesus must have had when arriving in a new village and not sure where he and his friends would find a place for the evening. Because clearly he and, let’s say, Peter and Jude Thaddeus probably needed to share floor space in a room together, creepy crawlers roaming among them, some days so tired they were out as soon as their heads touched the dirt. Or sitting with their hosts telling stories deep into the night.

The laughter, music and shouts of high school students from Junco waving flags and banners and running towards us while we were still a ways from their town made me think about how relatable Jesus made the image of the father running towards his prodigal son in Luke 15. Because clearly those in His audience hearing that parable had to have been met on their own roads by loved ones with open arms welcoming them home.

The swarms of people from Alto do Capim who formed a parade to lead us to our house for the night after performing a samba made me think of Jesus when he playfully looks among the crowd asking, “Who touched me?” in Mark 5. Because clearly, if all those people were crowded around Him would the moment be solemn and dour or rather full of energy, life and love?

Ignatian spirituality invites us to place ourselves in a Gospel setting and imagine the moment, the thoughts and feelings that surface in our meditation. As a Fordham student stated in our final reflection, we took the opposite approach and imagined Jesus as the main character in our setting, in rural Bahia. And if we can imagine Jesus in our setting we must have been doing something right.

By the time of World Youth Day the following week in Rio, we had arrived in our Jerusalem, a bit shocked by its sensuality, its temptation and exuberance, a far cry from the peace of the solitary roads, not unlike how the Galileans must have felt staring at the walls of their Jerusalem.

But those on this pilgrimage had the privilege of being fortified by who and what we saw. We saw Christ. And instead of taking a bus ride to an unknown land at the end of my time in Brazil, I was on a plane to Los Angeles, another kind of Jerusalem, and I knew I was not alone. 

 
About the Author
James Day 

James Day is a campus minister at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and a native son of Cleveland, Ohio.
 
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