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What the Camino has taught me…

Kevin Kelly SJ raised 6,000 euro for AJAN walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela earlier this year. He writes about his experience of this unique pilgrimage.

The long and winding road that leads to your door will never disappear.
I’ve seen that road before, it always leads me here.
– John Lennon and Paul McCartney

30 September 2013 – I was very fortunate to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela after completing my four-month assignment at AJAN. The pilgrimage began in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port at France’s border on 21 April and ended in Santiago, Spain, on 19 May. I walked for 29 days, approximately 800km, with another Jesuit novice and my Novice Director in addition to dozens of people that we met along the Way.

As part of the preparation for the Camino and while we connected with other pilgrims en route, we raised funds for and awareness of AJAN and the AIDS ministries that it supports across Africa. Through the generosity of friends, family and those connected through AJAN and Canadian Jesuits International, in addition to the pilgrims we met, we raised over $8000 Canadian dollars (approximately €6000).

The Camino was an incredible experience. Everyone who goes on this pilgrimage has their own story to tell. There are many elements that stand out to me: the beauty of God’s creation, the need for persistence and the amazing community that develops with the “strangers” you meet… These experiences are not unique to the Camino. In fact, I encountered many of them in different ways during my time at AJAN.

What is unique is the “space” the Camino creates as you walk – the moments of silence, a rhythm for prayer, the unpredictability of the path and a deep need for trust and patience. It is a total immersion in the beauty of creation. One day you might be trudging through snow in the Pyrenees, another day in rain or the hot sun along the flat Meseta; one morning you may see mountaintops peaking out of fog like islands in an ocean and then by lunch you may be walking through fields of wild heather in the hills of Galicia. There are cathedrals and windmills, sheep and cattle and the most curious, multi-coloured beetles I have ever seen. God is everywhere. There is no stretch of the route that looks the same: turning every corner brings a new and different view of God’s creation.

You quickly learn to trust that things will work out. If you get wet, you will dry out; if you get lost, someone will redirect you; if you are hungry, there will be food. It sounds easy, but it is amazing how much I challenged and resisted this at times. Being persistent is very different from being in control and pushing through. It is not about grinning and bearing it; it is about patience, calm and finding a rhythm even when it seems impossible. Persistence requires a great deal of humility and surrender.

By far, the most memorable aspect of my Camino is the people I encountered. There is an honesty and freedom felt with those you have only just met that may not exist with people you have known for years. Having a common goal and deep respect for the other creates an easiness and trust. Even though you did not come together, you join forces and give and receive support as needed. It’s not a race; there are no winners. You are all just walking from A to B and totally open to what will happen in between.

I am so blessed and thankful to have had this experience.

The money we raised for AJAN through the Camino will be used to support income-generating activities for women and men living with HIV in Kenya. These programs are focused on empowering individuals to overcome stigma and to find dignity and hope in providing for their families. As we carried them with us along the Camino route, we continue to hold them in our hearts.

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