What does a ministry of welcome look like when there’s nobody to welcome?
I was excited to be invited to help host the Emmaus Camino Acceuil in Arthez-de-Béarn. This has been a wonderful opportunity to give something back to the Camino community in gratitude for the albergues, refugios and homes I have been welcomed into as a tired and anxious, overheated or soaking wet pilgrim myself on both the Camino Francés and the Camino Portugués. And without Spanish or Portuguese, at least with my French, I can be of use here in France.
At just 88km from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, Arthez is in a very special location, 3-4 days walk along from the Spanish border (or according to the on-line maps 1h15m by car!). Camino Acceuil is a family house in a quiet street, a gentle resting place along ‘the Way’ en route to the next town. Pilgrims are invited to pause before heading onto the next gîte d’étape at Maslacq or further along down the road. A beautifully designed cabin in a lovely garden with tea, coffee, wi-fi and WC, the essential pilgrim passport stamp and most importantly a prayer corner with candle, icon and invitation to offer a prayer intention. The image of hospitality at Emmaus provides the story of the risen Jesus accompanying two disciples down the road before sharing a meal together.
This week has been very quiet. A couple of pilgrims leaving Arthez village early in the morning to get ahead of the sun for the day and one or two more coming through later on from Pomps. I have met a couple walking past, already full of breakfast and keen to get on to the coffee break further down the road. I have sat waiting in the shade ready to jump up to greet anyone ambling down the road. One morning while saying prayers, I heard the tell-tale click-clack of walking poles on the tarmac – what to do? Jump up, run across the garden to say “bonjour!” or keep going with the psalm at hand?
So my dreams of ushering many people in with a smile for conversation have been somewhat thwarted. What to do? I have opened up each morning and said prayers for all those on the camino – wherever they are, coming down from Geneva, up in the Portuguese mountains, within sight of the cathedral towers near Santiago… I have also said prayers for all those on the move around the globe, anyone walking as a forced migrant across borders or refugee fleeing to safety. I have said prayers for those in our world today for those who cannot leave home, because they have to look after young children or ageing parents, or hold down two jobs… I have said prayers for those who because of poverty will never have the chance to buy a passport or due to disability cannot travel out of their country… I have said prayers for those who think they have to make pilgrimage as penance, little realising that God loves them already where they are.
Then of course on one very hot day, several more pilgrims stopped, and I was so happy to be able to offer water, respite from the heat and refreshment, stamp their pilgrim passports (something I have always dreamed of doing!) and wish them well on their way.
And once again, I have been touched by the welcome I have received here. A fun and friendly welcome meal from last week’s ‘caretakers’, a warm conversation from helper Marie-France and in the sunshine to warm my own tired bones after a busy few weeks at work. In the cathedral at Compostela the usual Alpha-Omega symbols are reversed, so we have the end and then the beginning. And so it begins again… once more, in presuming that I will be one to offer welcome, it is I myself who have found a welcome in the embrace of others and ultimately in God.