Three Books about Pilgrimage

I’ve not kept up with writing about what I’m reading, but today, just to stir that pot a little, three book notes, on three books about pilgrimage.

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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Random House, 2012). Harold Fry is recently retired. He spends his days doing little besides trimming the grass and sitting about, irritating his wife Maureen, who is easily irritated. A letter arrives from a long-ago co-worker, Queenie Hennessy, dying of cancer and writing to say goodbye. Harold pens a short reply, struggling as he always has, to express his feelings. He walks to the mailbox to post it, and decides to walk to the next box instead. Then he decides to go a little further. And to keep going. Eighty-seven days and 627 miles later, he reaches the hospice with the letter.

This is a wonderful book about a long, long walk and people Harold meets along the way. And much more. Why does he need to speak to Queenie again? Why the silences between Harold and Maureen, and what’s going on with their son? An intriguing premise, mysteries to discover, and lovely writing and insights turn the pages of this book. For me, it rises to the top of two dozen or so books so far this year, in terms of an all-round satisfying reading experience.

Quote: …it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other… Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.

Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America by Jeff Chu (Harper Collings, 2013). It seems such a pity, heartrending really, that the title question even needs to be asked. But for Jeff Chu, raised in a devout Baptist home and with parents who still cannot accept his identity as a gay man, it’s a real question. His quest to answer it, to find the God “forbidden to him” because of his sexuality, takes him across America, to very conservative Christian places like the infamous Westboro Baptist Church (“Yes, Jesus hates you”) through more liberal settings, as well as a few such as The Gay Christian Network and Highlands Church in Denver that feel comfortable to him theologically and are also accepting/affirming.

Chu structures the book around the themes of doubting, struggling, reconciling, and hoping. Each section begins with a quote from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Chu interviewed hundreds of people. He tells some of their stories and describes his visits. He tells his own story. On the “conservative” end he’s judged because he’s gay, he says, on the “liberal” end he’s judged for hanging on to what is seen as “archaic” faith.

Parts of this book are hard to read, and I don’t mean the Westboro-type parts – they seem so kookish, they’re easy enough to dismiss – but parts like an odd interview with Ted Haggard (“I tell young men not to go into ministry—don’t do it. I regret going to a Christian university. I regret going into ministry”) and the “cowardice” Chu encountered among pastors, more “sheep than shepherd,” he says. He didn’t even get to the interview stage with nearly all the pastors he contacted. It’s not that they didn’t have opinions, they just didn’t want to go on record, it might jeopardize funding etc. etc.

This is an interesting and important book, but will make most sense to those who understand the fundamentalist/evangelical context of Chu’s upbringing and its particular language around faith and the reason he has had to put a question mark behind the lovely song he learned as a child, “Jesus loves me, this I know.”

Quote: I’m not out there being a militant about anything except about the love of God. (Mary Glasspool, first lesbian elected a bishop in a major American denomination)

Birth Mother by Joanna Wiebe (self-published, 2012). Perhaps “pilgrimage” isn’t quite the word here, but definitely a road-trip and a quest. In this memoir, Joanna Wiebe tells the story of her trip to Mexico, Guatemala, and Costa Rica for four months, late 1975 and early 1976. It’s no spoiler to say (since it appears very early) that what haunts her throughout the trip is the fact that she had a baby years earlier that she gave up for adoption – the document blaring FINAL SURRENDER at her – and is trying desperately to forget, but also to remember. She keeps it a secret from her travelling companion and boyfriend, Earl Grey, and waits for the right moment and the courage to be true to her past.

An older reader like myself, and probably Wiebe looking back, wishes this lively and gifted young woman wouldn’t “waste herself” and put herself at risk, but also roots for her to get home safely. She’s one plucky person, surviving an adventure that includes numerous detours and van breakdowns, running out of money, and quite unexpectedly, the earthquake that rocked Guatemala in 1976. The book also includes beautiful terrain, Mayan history, lots of cooking (some recipes included), and good friendships. And on the drugs question, well, as she insists throughout, she just did “organics”!

Full disclosure: Joanna sent me the book for review. We have a bit of a connection because of common church background, and she’s the daughter of well-known writer Katie Funk Wiebe. But now I’m just playing the Mennonite game.🙂

 Quote: Her tough, hard gardener’s body felt like a tree I could vine on.

8 thoughts on “Three Books about Pilgrimage

  1. The mother’s gift of writing lives on in her daughter! Thanks for making me aware of this book, Dora.
    There is very cursory mention of this daughter and the grandson Katie didn’t know until he showed up at her door in Katie’s memoir “You Never Gave Me a Name.” Katie writes about this event and other difficulties her children encountered: “This is the stuff of life. Deal with it. This is where meaning enters life. This is where God’s grace becomes apparent.” (p. 242)

    • Thanks Kelly. I like the Rachel Held Evans site too, and come to think of it, though I can’t remember for sure, I think this is where I was alerted to the Chu book. “The challenge is to allow people the space to tell their stories.” Yes. Which you as editor/writer know. — Readers will find the link you’ve provided a great place to get acquainted with Chu’s work.

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