“For in their hearts doth Nature stir them so
Then people long on pilgrimage to go.”
—Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
The footfalls of pilgrims past. It’s easy to imagine faint echoes when walking along the paths to Canterbury, Santiago, or Jerusalem, where generations have trod. It’s likely many of these pilgrims were searching, just like pilgrims today, some simply for fun and adventure, others for forgiveness, hope, and communion with God.
This idea of earthly pilgrimage—of a lengthy, at times arduous, journey—has long served as metaphor for the Christian journey. And for centuries, classics like Pilgrim’s Progress, first published in 1678, have reminded us all of our own pilgrim status on the journey toward the Celestial City.
It is this same pilgrim status that has captivated the hearts and lives of three alumni who hope very soon to spend most of their time in the company of travelers. Nate ’97 and Faith Wen Walter ’97 and Peirce ’03 and Christina Baehr are in the process of beginning hostels—Pilgrim House in Spain and Pilgrim Hill in Tasmania—to encourage travelers in their faith, to care for their physical needs, and to invite them to follow Christ.
Pilgrim House, Spain
“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.”
—Psalm 84:5 (NIV)
Nate and Faith Walter hope to soon receive consent from city officials to establish Pilgrim House as a welcome center in the spring of 2014. Santiago de Compostela is a historic destination for Catholics who come to pay homage to Jesus’ apostle, James, at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
For more than 1,000 years, pilgrims have traveled El Camino de Santiago, or “The Way of St. James,” highlighted recently in the movie The Way. Since the time of Late Antiquity, priests at times ordered parishioners on pilgrimages as a penance after confession.
And today for a variety of reasons, people from all walks of life and faiths traverse the 800-kilometer trail that begins in the French Pyrenees and ends on the northwest coast of Spain. The city of Santiago reported that last year more than 192,000 pilgrims received their “Compostela,” a certificate of completion of at least 100 kilometers of the Santiago pilgrimage.
Two of Wheaton’s Youth Hostel Ministry (YHM) leaders, Matt LeGrande ’14 and Steven Palladino ’13, hiked 150 kilometers of the Camino trail last summer, after stopping in to visit Nate and Faith in Santiago. (YHM is one of six programs offered by the Office of Christian Outreach.) Along the way, they spent a great deal of time walking with “nothing but the picturesque scenery and sounds of nature,” says Matt.
Each night, they would partake in the “meal of the day,” a lavish three-course dinner with fellow travelers. Matt had the opportunity to ask deeper questions of a couple in their sixties, Bruno and Catolina, an agnostic from Switzerland and a Catholic from Brazil. He was surprised to learn that in their five years of marriage, they had never discussed life after death. “Catolina playfully told her husband that he needed to get his soul in check even as he assured her that we were all headed in the same inevitable direction,” says Matt.
Conversations such as this one are at the heart of not only the YHM experience, but also the hospitality ministries that Nate and Faith and Peirce and Christina hope to establish.
All three alumni say the initial inspiration for their hostels came from summer mission experiences with YHM, a 42-year-old Wheaton program that has sent more than 600 students overseas in the summers with the goal of ministering to the traveling communities of Europe.
“When students are involved in Youth Hostel Ministry, I am trusting that this experience will be transformational such that they live out a lifestyle of evangelism for the rest of their lives,” says Rev. Brian Medaglia, director of the Office of Christian Outreach.
Nate served not one but three summers with YHM, spending a grand total of six months backpacking in Europe, enough to build an understanding of the subculture of travelers. He says, “I love how in a short time, you may go deeper with a fellow traveler than you do with your neighbors or coworkers after years of relationship.”
For her part, Faith remembers an afternoon at The Shelter in Amsterdam when she began talking with a guest two hours later, they had covered everything from faith and the Bible to original sin and redemption. “It was evident he was searching for something and thinking about God,” she says, noting that she hopes through their welcome center and hostel to have many more such conversations with future guests.
Nate and Faith got to know each other through YHM, and it seems fitting that they plan to receive a team of YHM students at their welcome center next summer. Both remember talking with Wheaton friends about opening a youth hostel one day but neither felt the dream was realistic.
Once married, they knew they wanted to serve cross-culturally, and so lived purposefully to pay off student debts and secure training. Nate worked for a benefits consulting firm in customer service, and Faith earned a master’s from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Only then did they begin making inquiries into serving in Europe.
They began exploring possibilities in Santiago with International Teams (ITeams), and within the last year, their team of two has expanded to eight people.
“Through the experience of watching God bring other workers to Pilgrim House, we’re constantly reminded, ‘That which the Lord originates, He orchestrates,’” says Faith, quoting Andy Stanley’s Visioneering.
Interestingly enough, the seeds of the second hostel were planted along the very same Camino trail traveled by Matt and Steve last year. As a student himself, Peirce Baehr worked at The Fuente del Peregrino along the Camino de Santiago during his summer YHM trip. This hostel now serves as the closest model to what he and his wife, Christina, hope to achieve in Tasmania, an island state at the Southern tip of the Commonwealth of Australia. About the size of West Virginia, the picturesque island has a booming tourism industry and a total population of about 510,000— Australia-wide, McCrindle Research estimates regular church attendance at only 8 percent.
Like Nate and Faith, Peirce and Christina have submitted their plans for development approval, and are actively raising funds with the hope of welcoming guests to Pilgrim Hill by the end of 2014.
For Peirce, YHM also served as an introduction to the idea of hospitality ministry. He served at both The Shelter in Amsterdam and in Spain at The Fuente del Peregrino. At the Fuente, workers shared a free meal with guests each night. “People were so blessed by this kindness,” he says, adding that they plan to share a free meal with their guests in the same spirit.
In Amsterdam he met a man who had been a male prostitute and had just come to Christ. “In watching the transformation in his life, the power of God’s work through a ministry of hospitality really struck home,” Peirce says, noting that the man later married.
After Wheaton, Peirce considered Bible translation after traveling to Papua New Guinea with SIL. “I loved my time in Papua New Guinea...singing with young folk under the stars on the beach at night . . . teaching card games to the kids in the dirt under their houses . . . but it’s the post-Christian west that grabbed my heart as profoundly needy for the gospel at this time in history.”
A Spanish major at Wheaton, Peirce studied German at Middlebury in Vermont and then church history at Regent College in Vancouver. He met his wife, a harpist and singer from Tasmania, while she was on tour in the United States.
“Starting at 13, I knew I was going to go into ministry. The question has been how. It took meeting Christina for the pieces to fit together, and Pilgrim Hill was born,” Peirce says. Though he always thought he would wind up in Europe, “the pieces made so much more sense in Tasmania, where Christina already had a host of connections and knew the culture.”
Today the closest alternative lodging to Pilgrim Hill is a “carbon negative, posh, eco-retreat that runs sacred healing circles and various other spiritualist events.” Peirce and Christina, with their team of seven, offer something completely different: the gospel.
Both couples understand that working with a transient population means they may not see the fruit of their interactions. Says Nate, “I know that with or without Pilgrim House some pilgrims are experiencing change. God is already present and at work here, and in the lives of everyone walking. Our goal is to be part of that journey and to do our best to encourage each pilgrim to move closer to Jesus.”