Two years ago this week, I went on a pilgrimage for the very first time in my life. This pilgrimage would be a week-long trek among the poor outside of Fortaleza, Brazil (the third most violent city in the world). Each day would involve about 20 miles of hiking across very arid country accompanied by long, intimate conversations with God and my fellow pilgrims. It was a life-changing experience.
On the second night of the pilgrimage, we were staying with a very poor family out in the countryside. In the home was a mother with two children. I was told the father had died several years prior. Of course, practically everyone on this pilgrimage spoke Portuguese as did the people in the homes where we were staying. Several of my fellow pilgrims were bilingual but many were not. So when we arrived in this rural home, Gabriel, the oldest orphan boy felt it his duty to help me - the poor, ignorant American.
He knew I couldn’t speak his language so he took it upon himself to figure out how to communicate with me and help me communicate with others. He would motion to his mouth to ask me if I was hungry or pretend to drink if he thought I was thirsty. Then Gabriel would say the Portuguese word for hunger slowly and loudly. If I repeated the word successfully, he would break out in a smile from ear to ear, nod his head affirmatively, and say “GOOD”.
Throughout the night, he kept pointing to things and identifying them for me. Later that evening, when he saw that I was laying in my hammock but still not asleep, he came to check on me. He wanted to make sure I was okay and through many words and gestures asked if he could help in any way.
Once Gabriel finally scurried off to bed, it finally dawned on me. Gabriel wanted to alleviate MY vulnerability. Because he’s a child of vulnerability, he could easily recognize it in others. So this child, who had every reason to ask something of me, this child who lived in abject poverty wanted nothing more than to help me.
The next morning when it was time to go, I told Gabriel good-bye and he disappeared. Later I learned that he had gone inside to cry. When I arrived at my next destination, one of my fellow pilgrims gave me a small stone and told me, “Gabriel wanted you to have this.” It was a small, white, crystal stone. He sacrificed one of his own priceless treasures just for me.
All week long, I thought I was there to be with a great man of God by the name of Carlos Pinheiro Queiroz. He was the former National Director for World Vision Brazil. I love listening to the man and the wisdom he exudes. But this pilgrimage was not meant to satiate my desire to be with Carlos because God had something better in mind. God sent me to be with Gabriel. Gabriel would be my teacher of compassion and generosity. Gabriel was the one sent by God to minister to my needs. It was Gabriel who appeared to me in my isolation and drew me into the circle of caring and love.
That’s the true purpose of pilgrimage – really the purpose behind every spiritual discipline – is the Christ encounter. Jesus met me in a boy named Gabriel. I’ll never forget him for as long as I live. How many times has God shown up in our lives and we have not recognized Him at all? How often is God disguised as the most vulnerable, needy person you’ve ever met? How frequently have we missed out on a great blessing simply because we have not been present to the moment presenting itself to us?