Notes from El Camino de Santiago

Tuesday, July 12, 2016, the sixteenth day of walking on El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, which began from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees, averaging about 27 kilometers (17 miles) a day over varied terrains and vistas. As I leave the Municipal Albergue of Mansilla de las Mulas (a pilgrim’s hostel), a question comes to me: “What is so religious about this pilgrimage to Santiago?”

I walk, eat, arrive at a destination, nurse my feet, journal, sleep, wake up the next day, and walk again. I meet people from all over the world, sometimes enjoying a spontaneous international celebration like last night. Though some participate in prayers and religious services, what preoccupies us mostly is mundane and personal stuff. The reason for this walk is “religious” for someone like myself, but it is not the case for the vast majority of others walking with me. It may be for them just a different kind of walk on a major trail or a backpacking trip. This pilgrimage though feels like no other hiking or backpacking trips I’ve done before in my life.

Today is an easy day–only 19 kms (12 miles) to León, a major city. I walk rather briskly, passing others. At about 11 km point, I encounter a young German student, age 18. He is surprised to meet a middle-aged Korean American who could sustain a conversation in his native tongue, though faltering here and there. He just finished Gymnasium (high school), did well in Abitur (university qualifying exam), and gained an admission to the Faculty of Law at the University of Hannover. He is quite clear on his position “against” church and religion, especially the Catholic Church. When I share my own critical appraisal of these institutions, he asks me why then I am still a pastor and remain in church. I tell him that religion and church are complicated and not simply this or that. Hearing that he has been active in politics as a youth member of SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany), I ask him whether every elected officer and the running of German government are as ideal as what former Chancellor Willy Brandt (SPD) embodied? He agrees that it’s not always the case and there are problems in politics. “Yet, you are still active in it,” I observe.

He’s been involved with the refugee resettlement. He once stayed at a monastery near Augsburg and–noticing so many rooms had not been utilized–sought out the monks to consider possibly housing the refugees there.  He was met with, “We don’t want those kind of people here.” Just recalling it gets him incensed: “Das ist so unchristlich (That’s so un-Christian)!” A clear evidence and ground to be anti-church/anti-religion. What fascinates me is his intuitive grasp of Christian values with which he criticized the church. I remind him that such would not be in accordance with the current Pope Francis, and add, “By the way, El Camino de Santiago is a very Catholic stuff and without Catholic religiosity, it would not exist.” No tourism marketing scheme or social movement could create and maintain El Camino for thirteen centuries–I am acknowledging–were it not for some kind of deeply felt and sufficiently authentic religious inspirations.

I interject: we need to change many people currently occupying influential positions in all institutions (religious, political, social), and transform the institutions themselves in order to better fulfill their original purposes. These are tasks for the younger generations to tackle, hopefully not repeating the mistakes of my and older generations. He is skeptical about such possibilities because he knows well how young people everywhere are politically and economically so “entrechtet” (disenfranchised; literally, dis-right-ed). We talk about nascent global young peoples’ movements. If young people talk to other young people, together they could engender new visions and possibilities. He becomes excited.  “We could use the social media!” When we arrive in León around 1 PM, we eat lunch at a KFC (!) and part our ways, heading toward different albergues.

At the Albergue San Francisco, four pilgrims from Korea with whom I’ve often walked together had arrived earlier and had my bed reserved. Amazingly, the laundry service is included in 10 euros for overnight. I take a long shower, drop off all my laundry needs, and take a tour of León with the fellow Koreans. The six euro dinner at the albergue offers three selections for both first and second plates. The acoustics in the refectory are really good. I begin to sing a camp song to the tune of Frère Jacques: “God we thank you (x2), for our food (x2), all of us together (x2), thank you God (x2).” An Australian woman in the queue picks it up, others join in, and soon we have a great round going for a while. This feels like a religious moment!

A man from Tennessee with a cane comes over to our table and introduces himself. He hurt his knees on this pilgrimage, received medical attention, and has been recuperating for two weeks. I share my own knee problems earlier on El Camino, and how I had to unlearn my lifelong habits, newly discover and relearn how to walk, and by doing so had healed the damages. He wants to try it himself. After about ten minutes of un-and-relearning, he walks slowly without pain and without his cane. Buen Camino!

Wednesday July 13, 2016, the Seventeenth Day on El Camino. I wake up at 6:30 AM, repack my stuff, and eat breakfast as soon as the refectory opens at 7:30. The server is not as hospitable as the one last night. Yet, to my surprise, I am not critical but understanding. Did El Camino change me?!

As others leave, I return to the room to be alone and quiet. A sudden fatigue comes over me. Setting the timer for 20 minutes, I lie down on my bed but miss the alarm to wake up at 9:05. I rush out to get to the Cathedral for the 9 AM mass, but the door’s already closed, and no latecomers are allowed in. So, I simply resume my walk, following the yellow arrows with the seashell sign.

El Camino soon splits into two. The original path follows a major highway, and the alternative route goes through a more scenic countryside (though it’s 6 kms longer to Hospital de Orbigo). I take the alternative.

An elderly woman stands in the middle of a long ascent, observing a large anthill with legions of ants working diligently in full cooperation, carrying food that is so much bigger than they.

“Increíble (incredible),” I comment.

“La palabra correcta (the correct word),” she responds, and continues to describe the unity of purpose the ants display in achieving something beyond themselves. We humans should emulate them. I answer in my limited Spanish, “Well, yes for working together for common projects. No for being programmed like the ants. We are not robots. Inspired to join, yes; forced, no.”  She points to the road, saying, “El Camino de Santiago is that inspiration which unites us. The Holy Spirit illuminates all.” She lives in León and walks 4 kms everyday on this road praying her rosary until she reaches a small chapel ahead and returns. While I’ve been mulling over what makes this walk religious, here is someone for whom it’s never anything else. She invokes Santiago to guide me on my pilgrimage, and I reciprocate with the only blessing I know in Spanish: “Que Dios le bendiga (May God bless you)!”

The sun is strong yet the air cool at this elevation. The frequent breezes make this quiet, lone walk pleasant. I stop at a hospitality point in Oncina to rest and write, move on, eat a late lunch at Chizas de Abajo, do some more writing, etc. By the time I arrive at Villavante at 6:00 PM after walking about 37 kms (23 miles), I am so exhausted and am suffering from nagging pains in my right hip that I need to stop.

While waiting at the only albergue there, a man ahead of me laments that we would miss the opportunity to sleep at the Parish Albergue in Hospital de Orbigo that we hear so much about. That was my original destination for the same reason. He would push himself for extra 6 kms, but the girl with him is in too much pain. Upon hearing it, something stirs inside me. I go to the bar, order an orange juice and croissant, rest for ten minutes, and take off again.

At the outskirts of Hospital de Orbigo, I ask for a direction. Noticing the shape I am in, the gentleman offers me a ride to the church about 1 km down the road. I answer, “Gracias, pero necesito caminar (Thank you, but I need to walk),” and inch away. I am not sure how to describe my feelings as the narrow, ancient bridge connecting to the old town comes into view with the church staple right in front me, only a couple hundred meters away. Stepping onto its rough pebble surface, I am greeted by a girl in Spanish: “You’ve finally arrived.”

It’s all true. Entering the Parish Albergue is like being transported to an oasis in the middle of a desert. Beautiful trees, a courtyard with murals and soothing water fountain, a garden.  Every detail–even to the toilet door handles–is carefully, aesthetically appointed. The place welcomes me as if to home! A Hungarian volunteer registers me, gives me a bed, and informs me that the evening mass is at 8 PM. It’s 7:58. I drop everything, and go to the church next door for a 30-minute mass. On returning, two college students gently offer me a simple Korean meal of rice and spicy soup with potato, zucchini and pork. I eat first, take a shower, do my laundry while trying to catch the last of the sunlight, and clean the dishes as an expression of gratitude.

A pleasant reunion, Alejandro from Oregon and Ollie from South Africa are in the kitchen, cooking chicken pasta in spicy Spanish seasoning. Alejandro thanks me for my earlier suggestion to change his shoes and way of walking. He could even run now without issues. Ollie informs me that the American professor from Lebanon I had a pastoral talk with is doing much better.

A white American woman on two crutches is nursing her feet. She talks about how she takes time to notice things as she walks and balances her alone and social times. She then declares, “I don’t get those who just walk and walk, just to get there fast. What’s the point?”  “Well,” I respond, “the Spirit of El Camino is so wide and generous that it embraces all kinds of reasons and ways of walking, each with its own validity. I think this generosity is what helps us find whatever is needed at the moment. We feel this intuitively or unconsciously. That’s why we walk religiously every day  and do not give up, even with all these pains and injuries.”

It hits me! “Religion” etymologically means “binding again.” All those loose ends are ultimately bound and given back to us with enough sign posts to give our life an overarching orientation that is life-giving. It is not a specialized part of our life as many assume. Similarly, God is not one most supreme being among many beings, but that which allows the beings to be: the Ground of Being (Paul Tillich). There are many “ism’s” and entities claiming to provide such a framework and function like a religion. The theological task is to critique these, to see if they are really life-giving or not.

Could our church then become as generous and open as El Camino, to the point where even atheists and anti-religious folks benefit from its grace?

I turn off the light for the night and rest in that grace.


Created by: Charles Ryu

About the Author: Charles is a United Methodist pastor in Middletown, NY, who is always seeking what is divine in the most mundane. He is a bit of a pianist, an actor, a community organizer/activist, and a writer who does not write much.

All photos taken by the author.

You are Wilderness


He took a couple large steps toward his bed and sprang upon it with an impish grin that suddenly lit the darkened room. As he landed, it was as if time had softly halted and he lay there for a half-minute in slow motion, his long limbs aflutter, stomach and groin taut, strong shoulders recoiled, and hands landing somewhere behind his head. I reached forward into the air and plucked out what appeared to be the heart of the universe suspended by a palpable strain threaded between us. This heart was silvery and beating, as small as a thimble that capsized as I drew it closer. Warmth spread towards me, a single sunbeam that permeated my entire body. It was at that moment the heart of the universe decided to speak.

Bienvenidos, it cried in upside down exclamation points.

I laughed.

Never had I been greeted in such a way. I had studied hundreds and hundreds of religious texts—Judeo-Christian theology, the Qu’ran, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and critical philosophical theories from old, haunted bookshelves littered all across this earth. But this—this little beating sunbeam I knew from the deepest recesses of my childhood. Light! Light! Light! The Greeks called it ἀγάπη, or unconditional goodwill. Time whirred into motion again, and little golden flecks fell at his feet.

Him! I had briefly forgotten, but there he lay—a teasing and complete stranger, still donning that impish grin. I took one more look at his tussled blond hair and icy blue eyes and was immediately seized again with the urge to tear all the clothes off his body. I had been there the whole night wearing a dress that defiantly wished to cling either to the ceiling or the floor; but it was as if a timer had been set to explode somewhere deep behind my navel and nether regions, leaving me with a mere ten minutes before I lost total self-control.

Instead of walking towards him—as would have been the only natural response—I heard myself mumble a few departing words and escaped into the cool night breeze.

He came through the door and stood still on his porch, as material as the planks beneath our shoes— and it was as if my body had faded into the night, translucent— as if this was how I had always been to him and to myself during these past two months— as if I was gossamer on a long autumn’s night. How could I have expected or wanted for him to see me? How could I have wanted to or been able to give anything of myself when all exertion of self-understanding remained but a ghost? And there he still stood, material as tree bark against my diaphanous skin.  

I have traveled this green earth

And never understood

How violently and delicately

The wilderness rushed within

Who knows, maybe my night serves as a defensible position for us. Our voice. Asian America. Perhaps our cadenced dialogue is a defining factor of our current political collective in America, a dynastic rhythm of silence and speech that threads us to our ancestors—Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Shinto that we had shed our bodies from only to be subsumed in a wrought Christianity by assimilation. Perhaps we have to take our time to speak, and perhaps our ways seem yet indefinable because our histories are long and complex, traversing numerous cultures, wars, religions, and political ideologies.

Or maybe, this shit isn’t that deep and I just wanted to talk about sex on a Christian blog.

Regardless, I’m thinking of all of you again, and as itinerant and terrible a religious person as I am, I wanted to raise a prayer of peace for you who continue to search and for myself—

I pray you would find what relics of hierarchical Asian society and Christian America, of your families and personal histories hold you back. What iron bars keep you from being all that you were meant to be—bare as from before you were born—as you are. And I pray for release from that which continues to subjugate us.

Because we are a wilderness

Waiting to be heard

Created by: Charlene Choi

About the Author: Charlene is a nomad based in Los Angeles and is a strategic planner for nonprofits serving marginalized communities.  Find one of her creative endeavors here.

Photo: taken by the Author.  Port au Prince, Haiti.

For I Know the Plans I Have for You

My parents immigrated to America in the late 80s. My father’s family were fleeing precarious business dynamics in Taiwan and my mother’s were fleeing the increasingly tight grip of the Chinese government. They were privileged exiles who traveled across the world with a single suitcase and dreams for their future family.

They met in graduate school, happenstance classmates who were pursuing the same degree. They shared desks, fume hoods, and notes. My dad made sure they kept studying together even after my mom switched programs. They met and studied in small cramped apartments, filled with more roommates than probably was permissible. Between dimly lit kitchen tables, and fire escape conversations, my father discovered he was smitten. In rented apartment units and borrowed space, my mother admitted that my dad was “alright.”

They studied together, planned for their futures, and when my mother’s father had a layover at JFK International Airport, she insisted my father go and meet him. Alone. My dad was, understandably, nervous to meet whom he hoped would be his future father-in-law. They met briefly, and as a broke graduate student paying rent by working two jobs, he had nothing to bring as a gift. So instead, my father told my grandfather about his American Dream. My father wanted kids. He wanted them to have a big beautiful house in the suburbs in a good school district with a view of the Long Island Sound. My father wanted to build a Home in a new land.

They saved for over 30 years and meticulously watched the market. They each worked two jobs, often bringing me to work as a toddler, and started a small business when I was in elementary school. They worked tirelessly toward their American Dream, and it all finally paid off.

When I was in college, they bought a piece of land in a decent neighborhood with a house that was quite literally crumbling, bulldozed it and then started building something new. They looked at architect sketch after sketch, finally visualizing a dream they’d had for over three decades. Finally they chose one. It took two years and almost everything they saved, but it was finally finished. Their American Dream Home.

What I find fascinating every time I visit my parents is how distinctly Asian American the house is. From the outside it looks like every single other home in our neighborhood. A modern two story brick and wood home in a colonial style neighborhood. Yet the inside is decorated with cabinets from my father’s close friend who is a Taiwanese carpenter, tables that have Chinese folktales etched into the sides, and vases from my mother’s family in Shanghai. The home has an American exterior with an Asian interior.

A house often tells the story of a family. It seems fitting that my parents built their story from the ground up. Their house is a story of both creation and loss.

My parents have lived in America for over 30 years now. They left China and Taiwan when they were in their twenties. They left the continent they grew up in to travel halfway across the world. They left behind friends, family, hopes and dreams for new ones. They left behind a life that they can’t access again. Their old home has changed radically in the three decades of absence. My father often tells me that moving back to Taiwan would be like moving to a new country all over again. The home that they once knew is gone.

Yet in their new homeland they are seen as foreigners. Their accent, their culture and even their food preferences are seen as “oriental,” “foreign,” and distinctly “not-American.” My parents have lived in America for 30 years yet their neighbors will continue to ask them “where are you from?” There are constant reminders that my parents will never be seen as Americans because they are not white.

So my parents built a house. In their reality, there was no place to call Home. So they created it. They built and filled a house with new memories, and new hopes. My dad bought a new wok in the hopes of learning how to cook 麻婆豆腐 (mapo tofu) and fills the house with the smells of his childhood. My mom took up flower arrangement to fill the house with gentle reminders of Beauty.

My family’s story reminds me of the Israelites in the book of Jeremiah. I’ve always found it amusing that people quote Jeremiah 29:11 in graduation cards “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a future.’” What they don’t mention in those cards is that the prophet Jeremiah is writing to a people in exile. He is writing to a people who have been forced to leave their homeland and are not seen as citizens in their new land, regardless of how long they have lived there. They are people who know multiple languages, not by choice, but necessity. They are people who left in search of a safer Home only to be denied. In the midst of exile Jeremiah tells the people of Israel to settle down. He tells them to build houses and plant gardens. He tells them to find partners and spouses for their children. Jeremiah tells them in the midst of exile, of forced assimilation, of spending decades in a land being seen as foreigners and strangers, that they are to build a Home.

The Chinese character for home is 家 (jia). But 家 is used for much more than a description of a physical home. 家 is used for phrases like 家庭 (family unit), 儒家 (Confucian ideology), names of occupations like 科學家 (scientist), and so much more. It makes me wonder if my ancestors understood that Home is so much more than just a structural house. We are creating Home every day in our relationships, ideologies, theologies, and vocations. As Asian Americans, we are building a Home for ourselves in spaces where we are not welcome.

So like the Israelites in Jeremiah and my own family, I am learning what it means to make a Home or 家 in the world. My 家 is in my chosen family, in these friendships that stretch along telephone wire and show me what healthy Godly community looks like. My 家 is in my journey of reclaiming what it means to be an Asian American Christian who engages with her Taoist and Confucian roots. My 家 is in discovering that Moses and other biblical people also struggled to fit his experience in the binary society he lived in. My 家 is in the Asian American community and my career in educating and mobilizing college students for Kingdom Justice and Reconciliation. Each day I am learning what it means to find Home in the world.

Created by: Cal Hsiao

About the Author: Cal is a part-time campus minister, barista, and seminarian based in St. Louis, Missouri. She loves books, film, photography and sometimes other humans. In her free time (when she has it) she freelances as a wedding photographer/videographer, goes on long hikes, and quietly plots the end of the world.

Hungry For Home


Food has always been an integral part of the Asian American experience for me. Food is not just sustenance, it is always an experience, tied to distinct memories. Boba has always been attached to my late night study sessions, sushi is part of my family’s complicated past with Taiwan, and roti canai reminds me of the loneliness of the immigrant experience. All together, they remind me of who I am, and where I come from.  

Part I. Boba and School

A lot of my social life revolves around boba. That’s just how it is when you call an Asian American suburb your home. There’s a boba shop adjacent to my school, a boba shop next to the Vons—heck, there’s a boba shop on the other side of my block. No matter where we go, my best friend and I always order the same thing—peach green tea with lychee jelly (half sweet) and milk tea with mini boba. If it’s a good day, we’ll get sweet potato fries to go. Going out for boba was a great way to start off the weekend on a Friday afternoon, but boba also reminded me of the crushing academic culture that many of my peers and I grew up in. Boba shops often stay open late, making it the ideal spot for a six hour AP Calculus study session, a place to cram for finals, and last minute college-essay writing. In an academic pressure cooker, boba tasted like three more hours until I can get to sleep, four more chapters to study, one more practice test, two more college essays…The hours filter by as study partners jostle each other awake, pulling up an extra chair next to the booth for the friend who shows up two hours late. Boba was both a relief from school and a reminder of it.

Part II. Sushi and Grandparents

My grandparents speak Japanese, a remnant of the Japanese occupation of Taiwan in the 1900s. So my grandmother brings sushi to Christmas every single year, along with a gigantic pot of miso soup. She embraced Japanese values and education as a means to rise in a tumultuous time, and each sip of soup and bite of sushi is a reminder that home is complicated, and sometimes painful. In my grandparents’ lifetime, Taiwan was occupied by the Japanese, then the Kuomintang, and is still currently claimed by China and not officially recognized as a country. On February 28th of every year, my grandfather invites me to the adult table and tries to remind me of his generation’s pain, and the university professors he lost in the White Terror. Certain words and opinions, whispered to the wrong person, or said at the wrong time, cost them their lives. His table, with his friends, has slowly shrunk over the year. He fills the seats with his children and grandchildren, and whispers his stories to us. In his broken English, he tries to say that home is hard, and he misses his home—what it was, and what it could have been.

Part III. Roti Canai and Chinese New Year

I forget that America is not my mother’s home, and it’s never more obvious than during Chinese New Year. Hours are spent on the phone, calling her mom and sister, apologizing about how she can’t go back this year. The pain in her eyes when she knows that there won’t be a seat saved for her at the family table. She grew up in Malaysia, and still ends some of her English words with la. When we go back, I always gorge myself on roti canai, a traditionally Indian food that fills the streets year round. Roti canai isn’t as good in the States, and I miss it—but I know my mom misses it more. It’s not true roti if it doesn’t come off a stand, still flaking and steaming in the cool of the morning, a relief from the impending humidity of the afternoon. Roti is a reminder of her home, and how she is always an “other” in America, an “other” in my Taiwanese church. When I hear her on the phone missing her family, I remind myself that no matter my relationship with my family—I’m going to call home every Chinese New Year.

Home is complicated, home is painful, home is stressful. But, I remember that wherever I call home, wherever I am—there’ll always be a seat for me at the table.

Created by: Yumei Lin

About the Author: Yumei is a student at Tufts University, passionate about social justice, movies, and finding the best boba shops.


from-to & everything in between

In three days, I will board a plane back to my passport land, a place I’m supposed to call home. It’s not. It’s my birthplace, my upbringing, my privilege. This poem is my attempt to my 20 months serving with migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong, finding community among them, and leaving my newfound home for an uncertain one.

From MNL

From JFK

to HKG
I leave
Husband, children, parents behind
For better work abroad
Hopes of a better income, so
Shacks can become houses,
Food can fill stomachs,
Education can bring opportunity.

I leave
Friends, family behind
For the mission field
Hopes for justice and peace, so
Night becomes the day,
Ashes turns to beauty,
Love can bring change.

I arrive
Suitcases full of pictures, cards, letters –
Memoirs of where I came from.

She waves to me,
Recognizing me from our video chat.
“Welcome to Hong Kong!”

“You’re so dirty.”
“Stop being so lazy.”
She yells at me,
Hits me, starves me.
Nothing I do is right.

“You’re so American.”
“I didn’t realize you’re so Asian.”
They assume my Western upbringing,
Surprised by my Eastern values.
Nothing I do fits.

Presidential election:
Promise of a better future –
Job creation, poverty alleviation.

Presidential selection:
Reality of a worse present –
Violence, deaths, a divided country.

Useless abroad –
What can I do?

“When can I get my pay, ma’am?”
She doesn’t give a clear answer.
I hope next month.

“Who do I ask?”
She doesn’t give a clear answer.
Indirect communication confuses me.

I miss my
Food, friends, family,
Speaking my native tongue.
I am sick of Chinese food.

My nose bleeds from speaking English,
But Cantonese isn’t any easier.
I want pansit and adobo.
I miss my husband, children, parents.
But here, I am.
A slave.

My mother language no longer familiar,
Tongue unable to pronounce correct tones.
I want tacos and pizza.
I don’t even like pizza.
But here, I am.

“We are workers, we are not slaves!”
Our chants heard
From Causeway Bay
To Central
For better pay
For better working conditions
“Domestic work is work!”

Unwelcome looks
Of disdain
Wherever I go
The pain of always knowing
I am a foreigner.

Mistaken for a migrant worker
In the summer
Ambiguous Asian features
In the “winter”
I am a foreigner.

We fight, we advocate, we unite
Despite our differences,
Because of our similarities,
For ourselves, for our countries, for others.

If not us, who?
If not now, when?

I find a new employer
Because filing a case means
No work, no money.
I hope she treats me better –
Feeds me,
Pays me.

I find my place in the space between
Asian American –
The awkward tension of being
Betwixt and between.

Hong Kong is not home.
I don’t belong here.

Gusto ko uwi.
I want to go home.

What’s next?

Created by: Jennifer Sushi Au

About the Author: Sushi is a missioner/social justice advocate/adventurer. She dedicates her life to serve with those in the margins of society and doesn’t mind the nomad life. She dreams big and lives Ordinary Adventures full of Amazing Days. She is finishing her term in Hong Kong as a Young Adult missionary with the United Methodist Church and returns back to her passport land. She has no idea what comes next but is excited!