“I’m not ashamed of being Christian.”
When the nice man who runs the albergue and mission in the middle of Via de la Plata nowhere (Villar de Farfon) said this, I admit to the tiniest prick of shame. I am sometimes embarrassed about being Christian. Christians come in all the colors of the rainbow, some of whichI profoundly disagree with. On the other hand, to some people, believing in the trappings of my Catholic Christian faith is considered naive, like believing in the tooth fairy.
But I wasn’t sure I’d agree with this guy, either. Christian missionaries from South Africa in the middle of nowhere in Spain is a bit of a mindbender.
As it turned out, I would be inspired and humbled by this man who wasn’t ashamed of his faith.
I was winding up the final stretch of what was turning into a lengthy and many-splendored day. I had heard about the mission. I expected something rustic and tattered about the edges. I expected Evangelical arm-twisting or Hallelujah! fervor of the type I was familiar with from homegrown fundamentalists. I was prepared to drink my tea, listen respectfully, and continue on the last handful of kilometers to the albergue at which I planned to stay that night.
Instead, coming around the bend, I encountered a simple, open-air kitchen that was clean and cozy. Peregrinos could have a drink, pet the dog, and rest–without expectations or sermonizing. There are also three comfy beds and a bathroom–all “donativo
.” Craig, the missionary, was low-key. We might only have exchanged pleasantries had I not initiated a conversation.
Craig and his wife, Dorothea, cut their missionary teeth in northern India, where their intent was to live as Christian witnesses amid the local people. They weren’t, and aren’t, affiliated with any denomination or non-profit. They simply moved in, learned Hindi, and lived insofar as possible like their neighbors. They also grew to a family of 5–their oldest son gained two sisters..
Craig’s message and theology is simple: God is love, and that’s what Jesus preached-the kind of love that feeds the poor, clothes the naked, and loves enemies. Craig doesn’t get hung up on rule of law or fine eschatological distinctions. It’s all about the love. That’s how he strives to live; that’s what he works to embody.
At this point, I had about a million questions, but the one that’s stumped me my whole life goes like this: My constant prayer is, “Lord, show me the way. What would you have me do?” And even though I don’t expect to hear a voice in my ear, I also have rarely felt much direction one way or the other. I kind of operate by the Quaker dictum of “Follow the way that opens” but even that leaves lots of room for uncertainty.
“For me, it works like this,” he said. “I take a step and look around for confirmation. Then I take another step.”
That’s how he and his wife, and their three kids ended up starting a series of schools for AIDS orphans in Zambia. While still in India, they watched a documentary on the desperate plight of children in Africa.
“The usual response would be, ‘How terrible. Someone should do something.’ But Dorothea said, ‘We should do something.’ I honestly didn’t think I had the energy to start over. Building our mission in India had been so exhausting.”
Then, they had to renew their visas, and the renewal was denied due to some political tit-for-tat between India and South Africa. So, the family was in limbo, without a country or the means to relocate.
They managed to sell their furniture to a friend, but after red tape and reconnoitering in Africa, the small amount of money was gone, and they still needed airline tickets for the final move.
This is the knife edge of faith upon which Craig and Dorothea balance every day. Without a paycheck, donors, or outside support, they trust that they will be given what they need. They know their choice is incomprehensible to most of us.
“Call it impulsive; call it irresponsible,”said Craig, as though he’s been called both a time or two. They could, if they chose, indulge in the luxury of judging or envying those who live more sheltered lives-the missionaries and non-profit workers who have an income and support from home, who can take a break when the work becomes exhausting.
But they don’t. They and their missionary friends are on the same side, working toward the same goals. Craig and Dorothea have just chosen a different path.
Craig admits that, although he’s experienced miracles, this path is hard. Take the airplane tickets, for example. Before they had to move from India, he’d read in Scripture, “I will go three days before you.” He understood this to mean that a solution to the ticket problem would come three days before they had to leave–or, if it didn’t, he could potentially go to jail.
It came. I can’t remember the details, but suddenly through some acquaintance of a friend, money was deposited in his account in the nick of time.
So, in Zambia, the family set about starting schools for AIDS orphans on the thinnest of budgets. They used whatever structure was available as a school. They managed to buy books and supplies. Dorothea taught classes, and they trained out-of-work African teachers. They provided one hot meal a day.
Within a couple of years 1000 children in 17 schools were being fed and educated. It was a bootstraps method, but it worked. Today 5000 children attend these schools. “The program was successful because it’s a very simple model and easy to replicate,” said Craig. “Often big organizations will come in and build structures and set up systems that are hard to maintain and hard to duplicate.” They also managed to attract a cadre of utterly dedicated volunteers.
The family moved to Spain a few years ago after Craig walked the Camino himself and found that peregrinos were often at a turning point in their lives and thus in a receptive, questioning frame of mind. So, again taking steps and waiting for confirmation, he bought (again, miraculously) a trashed house and set about rebuilding it. And again, without income, he greets the people who drift through. His is one of the “donativo” albergues, and that’s what he and his family live on.
The thing about Craig (I didn’t see Dorothea. I only heard peaceful, lilting voices from the house) is that he’s both honest and humble about the challenges of their life while at the same time being without rigidity, judgement, or self-righteousness.
While eternally faithful, his is the same just-in-time God as the Jews encountered in the desert. Nothing is given ahead of time, and when it comes, manna doesn’t store well for the next day. There is a depth and richness to this life that few of us could understand, and I imagine, a tension, as well. “The more you have your own resources, the more independent you are from God,” he says.
“In summer we are able to live on the donations but in winter when the Pilgrims stop coming through we will be in the Lord’s hands, which is better,” he says. “One would think by now after 30 years one would have strong faith, but as I often tell the Pilgrims we never get stronger but we become more aware of our weakness which happily translates into God becoming stronger in our lives! ”
But then, Seigmund, the 77-year-old diabetic man who was also walking the Via de la Plata stumbled in and needed to eat. Craig plundered the pantry he keeps for these occasions, and I set out to walk the last few miles.
I stepped into the sunlight, disoriented. Where was I? On the African savannah? It honestly took a minute to bring myself back to the place and task at hand.
I’ve since thought a lot about Craig and our conversation. He and Dorothea, I think, are among those rare and special spirits, like Brother Casey. Like Peace Pilgrim. The rest of us don’t necessarily “get it” but there’s something about the story and the spirit that stick with you for a long time.
You can write to Craig and Dorothea Wallace at Travesa Iglesia 25, Villar de Farfon. 49330. Zamora. Spain.
If you feel moved to support his work, the easiest way is through Paypal at the email address: firstname.lastname@example.org