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Greater NW Pride: One Step Forward



One Step Forward: The Art of Pilgrimage in Life

I recently completed walking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru. It was amazing!
This is the 20th year I’ve gone on a pilgrimage. Call it a spiritual practice/continuing education event/a source of life and living that I began soon before I left teaching at Duke Divinity School. Here was the situation: While I kept writing about pilgrimage in my books and essays and sermons regarding people with disabilities and the Church, I had two friends who challenged me to actually go on a pilgrimage. To paraphrase what they said to me: you write pretty things about pilgrimage. Too bad you’ve never been on one.  They were correct. The hubris of the academic life is that we often write about things we are interested in intellectually, and believe we are experts on the topic, with little to no experience of actually doing a thing itself. So, with the help of my friends, my first pilgrimage in 1999 was a six-day, 120-mile pilgrimage from Costilla to Chimayo, New Mexico, under the auspices of the Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe, NM. It radically changed my approach to religious education, and thus, my life.
This year’s pilgrimage brought me to a part of the world in which I’ve never done a pilgrimage before: South America! My sister-in-law’s family all live in and around Cusco and Lima, and this was a chance to get to know Cusco and her family. Cusco was also the jumping off point to Machu Picchu. And people said it was wise to spend time in Cusco because of the high altitude. Altitude was going to be tricky: Cusco is over 11,000 feet above sea level, and the highest point on the Trail was over 13,000 feet above sea level. It would be like walking on the top of Mt. Hood and Mt. Rainier. Drinking coca leaf tea and chewing coca leaves helped a lot.
On the day before I left for the pilgrimage, my sister-in-law’s father told me what the secret is for completing the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: put one foot before the other and keep going forward. It was OK to zig-zag now and then as you walked up the trail, and look up and forward to the destination now and then, but focus on simply putting one foot before the other and go forward. After all, all the pilgrimage books and films and literature always move the pilgrim forward on the pilgrim path, from Jesus on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, John Bunyan’s “Christian” in Pilgrim’s Progress, to “Dorothy” in The Wizard of Oz (trust me, it’s a pilgrim’s tale).
And I did. And over four days and twenty-six miles and ridiculously high altitude, I soon found myself standing in the middle of Machu Picchu as the mist slowly lifted and moved away, and the 500-600-year-old ruins unveiled themselves. It was magical, to say the least.
Every time I go on pilgrimage, I always look for a lesson that I’m to bring back with me where I live life on an everyday pilgrimage, and this year this phrase of putting one foot before the other and moving forward is the gemstone I am carrying with me back in Portland, Oregon. 
In my work with the United Methodist Church, I have a clearer understanding of where I am and what is happening. With the decision of the General Conference of 2019, the UMC did not follow the simple and necessary rubric of putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward on its collective pilgrimage.  Instead, rather than moving forward, toward the goal of full-integration of LGBTQ+ people in the life of the Church, it chose to do the very opposite: to move backwards. If the realm of God is in front of us and around us, then what the UMC did, collectively, was move away from the realm of God and love towards the realm of fear. While God is everywhere, no matter how much we falter in our step, and just like the people of Israel had to spend some time in the wilderness before they found their way to the Promised Land, the UMC may have to spend some time in the wilderness, going in circles until we find our way again, my hope the same will be true for the greater UMC: that we will find our footing and move towards integration of all who are called to be members of Christ's body.
My hope and prayer: that in 2020, the UMC will learn the lesson I learned from walking the pilgrim or Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: walking one foot before the other, moving forward. It’s OK to sit now and then, rest, get perspective, look forward to see where the heck we are going. Yet what is true and constant in all pilgrimage stories of individuals is true for the Church: the motion is forward, together, not one step back. May it be so. Ultreia!

Brett Webb-Mitchell
Rev. Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell is an openly gay Presbyterian pastor in the Portland area serving as the part-time LGBTQ+ advocacy coordinator for The Oregon-Idaho Conference of the UMC. He can be reached at brett@umoi.org. Become a subscriber to the Greater NW Pride blog to get Greater NW Pride in your email box!