by Cecie Suknaic
My expectations for the pilgrimage were a bit too stereotypical, and I was surprised again and again by the presence of God in unexpected places and people.
As a part of the Peru pilgrimage, we visited with churches in Lima and Cusco, having the opportunity to hear their stories and interact first hand with the members of the congregations. Most of the churches were led by strong women of faith, women who were not afraid to take action in their community and listen to the call of Christ. With neighborhoods riddled with domestic violence, child abuse, drugs, alcohol, and gangs, one would think the people would be beaten down, broken, desperate, and unhappy – but, each time we turned up at a new congregation, we were welcomed as old friends returning home.
We were hugged and kissed, ushered inside, fed, taken care of, and most importantly: shown unconditional love that we did nothing to deserve. This love is the exact sort of radical love that God extends to us every day and that we are called to extend to all.
My privileged mind believed that because these people lived in poverty, that they would be encompassed in an aura of despair – so when I saw their joy and faith, I was shocked. Their lives were truly full, and they embodied Jesus’s command to love your neighbor as yourself.
God was there, God is still there, and God showed me what it truly means to be intentional and loving through the Lutherans I met in Peru.
We boast about how hospitable Lutherans are here in the United States, how there is always coffee and doughnuts in the parlor on Sunday mornings and a greeter at the door to shake your hand.
But, seeing the way that the Peruvian Lutherans treated complete strangers as family, by serving us meals when there most likely was a need elsewhere, being patient with our broken Spanish, laughing with us, crying with us, and loving us, I can say that doughnuts and coffee do not sufficiently fulfill the call to love one another as God has loved us.
Leaving the churches, the friendships we had formed and the sacred places we had encountered the Holy Spirit, was heart breaking. With tears in my eyes and a heart full to bursting with love, I walked away day after day not knowing when I would return. Not knowing whom the kids I met would grow into. Not knowing how I would return home to the normal routine of what I can now say is distorted with superficial privilege.
But, we are called to put our faith in God, so even if I left Peru feeling as if I am unfinished, I know that God is not. God has placed exceptional men and women into the communities throughout Peru to show people how to love, to raise up the next generation with a desire for Christ, and to care for all whom come through their doors.
God works in mysterious ways, and as I embarked on this pilgrimage, I thought I would be helping with change more so than changing myself. But, once again, my naivety clouded me from realizing that God had other plans. The friendships I held with those accompanying me from Texas A&M deepened, the relationships I made with strangers, both those a part of our trip and those in Peru, flourished, and through constant challenges and intentional relationships, God began to open up my heart.
Trekking through the Andes Mountains and visiting sacred, historical places such as Pachacamac, Machu Picchu, and other Inca ruins allowed our group to reconnect with God in the quiet, in the beauty of the earth, and in the mystical. And on our last day together, as we sang out the words to “How Great Thou Art” in the lobby of the hotel, I couldn’t stop my tears from falling.
This trip was far from easy, it was unlike any “mission” trip I have ever been on before, and I’m not sure that I have changed so much in such a short period of time, but I wouldn’t trade my experience in Peru for anything in the world.
And this pilgrimage will live on even as I return home and am once again swept up in the busyness of college life, because God isn’t finished with us. God’s work is far from over in my life, in your life, and in the lives of the people in Peru.
Our little trip was not the start of the relationship between Lutherans in the United States and those in Peru; we were only a small part of the story. There were people before us and there will be people who come along in the future, but God has been a constant. And now, my heart is torn: I have obligations to fulfill here, but my mind is still set on Peru.
Thinking it over again and again, I am brought back to Psalm chapter 46, verse 10: “Be still, and know that I am God!”
God is in the stillness, God is in the present, God is up to amazing things throughout the world, and God calls us to be a part of the story. Hear the call and take the journey, and do not be afraid because God is already there. Amen.
Cecie Suknaic is a sophomore at Texas A&M University. She and 24 others travelled on the cross-generational LEAD Peru Pilgrimage in June 2016.