This morning we said a tearful goodbye in front of the polar bear mural to Anna, Ivana and Lia, our honorary grandmothers/hosts of the night! None of us wanted to pull away from their warm hugs. As a parting gift, Ivana gave me and Claudia beautiful centrini, or lacy doilies, that she’d made with her own expert fingers.
One of the best parts of the Pilgrimage is the connection we can feel with our hosts after just one evening; each person truly gives us strength that helps sustain us for the kilometers to come. We mean it when we tell people that we will carry them to Poland! Walking with prayers written on ribbons and flags helps remind us of the people we are carrying and the love and commitment behind this journey that extend far beyond the eight people currently walking.
It is my experience that walking brings out our human capacity to welcome the stranger. On each of the three climate walks I’ve been part of, we’ve received incredible generosity not only from our hosts, but from people who spot us on the road or meet us at rest stops. On the march I joined across the US, climate change deniers even let us stay on their land, visited our camp and brought us firewood.
I have heard many stories of walkers who survive off generosity from strangers. The Peace Pilgrim took three decades to walk across the United States seven times, carrying only the clothes on her back and a comb and toothbrush. She brought no money and never asked for food or shelter, walking until someone offered her a place to sleep. Joemar Obejas, who walked with us in France on the 2015 pilgrimage and plans to join us this November, spends much of his time walking around the Philippines, sometimes collecting donations for people in need, sometimes raising awareness, sometimes teaching martial arts and offering healing to people he meets along the way. He does not plan his route, but he always has ways to thank his hosts, cleaning their houses before he sets off in the wee hours of the morning or getting their addresses and promising to send coconut jam. By arriving in a community in need of hospitality and open to receiving it anywhere, these walkers have begun connections where two strangers have the potential to change each other. Although our climate walk routes are planned, we too have encounters with strangers where we end up changing one another.
Traveling by foot also means that many of these encounters are with people outside of our usual circles. When we are out on the road, people who drive past or see us from their windows ask where we are going, opening a window for a conversation about climate change. Because the Pilgrimage is a spiritual journey backed by faith organizations, many of the groups that host us are parishes rather than environmental groups, composed of people who might not have otherwise thought to attend, or even heard of, a climate change event. Hearing that people are walking thousands of kilometers for something they believe in can open someone up regardless of whether they care about the cause; the man who brought us firewood on the march across the US said, “I don’t believe in this manmade climate change, but if you’re committed enough to walk across the country, I’ll help you!”
On this pilgrimage, I believe we are able to connect particularly deeply with our hosts because of the climate witnessing that the Filipinos in our group offer, the bravery and vulnerability of sharing a personal story with a group of strangers. This kind of sharing, and the practice of welcoming the stranger, feel particularly important at a moment that requires us to open and extend our compassion, yet also has the potential to close us off. I spoke about this contradiction in my post from Ravenna, and I am reminded again today of Naomi Klein’s words about climate change forcing us to decide what kind of world we want to live in.
Tonight we were invited to a church service in a small town outside Padova, where the priest delivered a sermon called “The Temperature of Our Hearts.” “The earth is warming as our hearts seem to be cooling,” he said, echoing Klein’s warning that climate change “makes for a hotter and meaner world.” The priest ended with an appeal to the audience: “As the earth warms, I sincerely hope we will not allow this cooling in our hearts.” If we cannot fully avoid a hotter world, perhaps to change course from a meaner world we need more walking, more sharing of stories, more evenings with strangers whose paths we wouldn’t otherwise cross.