After I graduated from Bluffton University, I decided to sign up for Mennonite Voluntary Service with a placement in Hutchinson, Kansas. In many ways, this whole endeavor was a pilgrimage because part of the reason I went to the “wilderness” of Kansas was to try to figure out what life beyond college looked like for me.
While I was on this wider pilgrimage that eventually expanded into three years, I also took what I would consider a much more specific, shorter-term pilgrimage. I had built a relationship with Camp Mennoscah, a Mennonite camp near Hutchinson, and the director invited me to spend a retreat weekend in the camp’s guesthouse. I had volunteered to help with a crafting retreat that ended up getting canceled, so the director still wanted to offer me the space to do a solo retreat.
I took her up on the offer, and also decided that I was going to take on the challenge of riding my bike there. For those of you who are more avid cyclists, I’m sure this would have been no challenge at all, but at the time, the 35 miles between Hutchinson and Mennoscah felt like the perfect distance to really push myself while also being doable for my level of cycling.
I took this offer partly for the challenge of riding there, but also because I was in the midst of my own process of coming out and wanted the time and space to process my thoughts on sexuality and faith. Not only would the weekend alone in the guesthouse give me time to do this, but the hours spent getting there and home would be their own form of pilgrimage meditation.
Until that point, I had done a lot of bike commuting around Hutchinson, but had never done longer distances out in the country. I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for the challenge of riding into the fierce headwind that came on in the last third of my journey. My legs were not accustomed to this amount of resistance that left me feeling like I was practically moving backward despite how hard I was pedaling. The hopeful and naive first part of the journey was quickly forgotten as I mentally negotiated with myself about whether I would even make it.
Shortly before getting to the campground there was a small hill that needed to be conquered, and by the time I hit that point, I was done. Even though this was Kansas and a “small hill” was probably not much more than a bump in the road, the added resistance of even this slight elevation and the wind was too much. Rather than continue to fight it, I decided to get off my bike and walk the rest of the way to camp. I did make it, though it took much longer than anticipated.
After cleaning myself up and refueling, I settled in for the weekend. I had brought with me a couple books on the issue of sexuality and faith, and I decided to dive in.
I wish I could say that I had some grand revelation as I read those books and contemplated my personal journey. I did read quite a bit over that weekend, but I quickly realized that those specific books made me feel like it was always going to be an uphill, into-the-wind battle. There would always be more theologies to unpack and biblical exegesis to correct or new strategies for convincing people of faith that there is nothing wrong with being gay.
Maybe it was just a poor choice in books for this pilgrimage, but I don’t remember a single thing from any of them. What I do remember is that while I was there I spent more time devouring the last book in the Hunger Games series, which I had thrown into my bag thinking I might need a break from more academic books. I remember feeling heavy as I read the books I was “supposed” to be reading but excited and hungry for more when I allowed myself to dive into the world of Katniss and Peeta.
It is only with some distance and hindsight that I can look back on that pilgrimage and realize that I did get a lot out of that experience in relation to my journey with faith and sexuality. There is good work to be done by biblical scholars and theologians seeking better expressions of faithfulness in regard to sexuality, but I don’t ever want to lose sight of the fact that Jesus came so that we may live life to the fullest. Learning to accept my sexuality is fine, but learning to celebrate the gift it offers me and the world is a much more interesting endeavor.
Sure, there will be times when I will have to face heavy winds, but it’s ok to not fight so hard, to get off and walk for a while. The more important thing for me when I think about this grand pilgrimage of life is that I hope I learn to ride with the wind, to follow fully and joyfully when the Spirit leads me toward what makes me feel more alive.