On the Pilgrimage Road of Hospitality With Abraham, Jesus and Saint James



The story of Abraham begins with an imperative: Lech Lecha, meaning “Go” or “You go” or even “Go to yourself.” These words in Genesis set Abraham off on his journey from Harran to Canaan, an epic expedition whose story entered into the monotheistic faiths as an origin story embraced by over half of the world’s population.

The 6th century Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu is famously quoted as saying, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” But I have to disagree. The journey begins well before the first step is taken. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a call. That moment of inspiration, sometimes dramatic in burning bush fashion, other times more mundane; that seed planted sometimes years or merely days (for the truly spontaneous) prior to a journey-- that spark constitutes the true beginning.

My own lech lecha that sparked my still ongoing journey to the Middle East and into walking pilgrimage came in a routine meeting with my university advisor Linford Stutzman when I was an Eastern Mennonite University undergrad. I was meeting with Linford about designing an independent study in Cuba for my cross-cultural requirement. Linford listened supportively, and ended with, “Well, if that doesn’t work out, you can always join my Middle East cross-cultural semester.”

The Middle East had never really crossed my mind. After years of studying Spanish, I was immersed in the world of Latin American revolution, campesinos and coffee and coca fields. I had only unformed images of the Middle East, as war-torn, brutal, dangerous, mysterious, woven into world and biblical history, full of veiled women and swarthy men, bathed in fragrant waterpipe smoke.

That casual offer from Linford introduced a gentle crosswind that nudged the trajectory of my voyage, and I set off for Cairo in January 2004. The whirlwind education program took me from the pyramids to Jerusalem to Nazareth to Athens. The ancient history and the modern-day passions of the region got under my skin and I longed to return long after the three months of learning was complete. The Middle East, and spiritual and physical pilgrimage, became part of my life’s landscape irrevocably. Hospitality, generosity and welcoming the stranger are the common threads in my experience of pilgrimage, which humbles and inspires me.

Pilgrimage to Jesus

I returned to the Middle East in 2007 for an internship with a local non-profit, but then was swept away in the momentum of helping establish the Jesus Trail, from Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus, to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee, where the majority of his ministry took place. The trail was founded by David Landis (who later became my husband) and his Israeli friend Maoz Inon. I started by going out on scouting trips, a Bible in one hand and a GPS in the other, looking for the best route to connect biblical and other historical and cultural sites. As interest in the trail grew, David and I co-authored a guidebook that was published in 2010, just before our wedding.

A salient feature of the modern landscape of the trail is the diversity encountered on the way. Hikers can stay in Christian, Muslim and Jewish villages and walk alongside all kinds of people. I grew in appreciation for Jesus, who navigated a similar mosaic of diversity in “Galilee of the gentiles” and preached a hospitable kingdom that welcomed everyone, a banquet table set for even the most unlikely guests. The trail provided countless opportunities for me to encounter hospitality and generosity and to enter into the biblical story in meaningful ways.

Hospitality, an assumption and a way of life, underlies every part of life in the Middle East. In the nomadic history of a land with limited water resources, hospitality was essential to life, as traveling nomads could not survive without welcome from the local populace. This hospitality is reciprocal and empathetic as the giver recognizes herself in the recipient, knowing that the time will come when she also will be dependent on another’s generosity, not unlike the biblical admonition, "Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”

One time when I was leading a group of young adult volunteers on the Jesus Trail, we were camping at the bottom of the cliffs of Arbel near the Sea of Galilee. As darkness fell and the evening turned cold, we realized we had not brought enough food for the group. We struggled to light a fire, but the wood was too wet. To make matters worse, we heard the sound of approaching footsteps, and a shadowy figure emerged from the dark night.

“What are you doing here?” the figure asked. He looked around, surveying our predicament, and said, “I will be back,” as he melted back into the thick darkness. We looked at each other uneasily until one group member gave voice to our fears: “What if he’s going to get his friends? Or a gun?” Our vulnerability, as unprotected in an unfamiliar place, sank in and we wondered aloud if we should pack our bags and keep walking.

As we were locked in nervous indecision, the man re-emerged into the clearing. He was not carrying a weapon or leading an angry mob. He was carrying two plastic bags. From one emerged a stack of fresh pita bread, a container of yogurt, some cucumbers and tea bags; from the other, a small stack of dry firewood. He wordlessly began to build a fire and distribute the food. As the lapping flames warmed our chilled bodies, so our fears began to thaw. Although we did not share a common language, we learned that he was a Bedouin from the nearby Muslim village. He spoke with fond appreciation of his own nights camping out, watching his family’s sheep. He filled a worn metal teapot with water, tea bags and a handful of sugar and placed it on the coals to share warming glasses of tea with us.

This reversal of expectations, this unexpected replacement of hostility with hospitality, left each of us humbled. When he left, we settled down to sleep, warm and satisfied. The gun-fearing member of our group spoke up again: “It’s like the story of the sheep and goats. ‘When I was hungry you fed me.’ Like the Good Samaritan. It’s what Jesus asks us to do, and this Muslim man did this for us.”

Jesus Trail
A hiker on the Jesus Trail takes in views of the Cliffs of Arbel with the Sea of Galilee in the distance. Photo by David Landis

Pilgrimage to the Apostle James

My work with the Jesus Trail led me to the Camino de Santiago in Spain, a 500-mile ancient pilgrimage route to the traditional burial site of the apostle James on the western coast of Iberia, sometimes known in English simply as “The Way.” Hundreds of thousands of walking and bicycling pilgrims make this journey each year. A highly developed system of inexpensive lodging, known as albergues, offers respite to tired pilgrims. This pilgrimage reached its zenith in the Middle Ages, and hundreds of monasteries, convents and other religious institutions offered accommodations to the wandering pilgrims limping toward Santiago de Compostela.

Pilgrim legends abounded to encourage the local populace to act generously toward pilgrims. Once such legend tells of a local woman baking bread in her house when a pilgrim knocked on the door and asked if she had any food to spare. The woman lied and said she had none. When she returned to her oven, her baking bread had turned to stone.

One monastery along the Spain/France border was extolled in a 12th century poem:

“The door opens to all, to sick and healthy, not only to true Catholics but also to pagans, Jews, heretics, the idle and vagabonds.”

A sense of that ancient hospitality lives on today with some of the pilgrim guesthouses offering accommodation and meals for a donation, whatever the walker can spare. While the pilgrimage was traditionally Catholic, today many of the walkers consider themselves “spiritual but not religious,” and many come to walk the path after experiencing tragedy or disillusionment, a lost job, a divorce, death of a loved one, and other disorienting events.

When I first walked the Camino de Santiago in 2009, I stayed at pilgrim lodging in a convent in the town of Carrion de los Condes. The simple dormitory accommodations with hot showers and a well-equipped kitchen cost a whopping €3 (less than $5). The nuns invited the guests to attend an evening of folk singing in the reception area. Several young, vibrant nuns in their black and white habits handed out song sheets and began to sing energetically while one of them played a bright purple acoustic guitar. They sang popular folk songs in Spanish, and the gathered guests belted out Guantanamera, De Colores and other rousing melodies. None of the songs were overtly Christian--no stolid hymns or cheery praise songs.

Near the end of the evening, the mother superior stood up and offered a brief message. She said, “As you walk this path, you do not walk alone. The light goes with you. You have felt the light in the friendships you have formed, in the peace you have felt, in the hospitality you have received, in the inner strength you have found. For us, this light is God.”

She proceeded to hand each of us a small colorful paper star, as a symbol of this light on our journey. This gentle message touched me deeply as I reflected on the moments of light in my journey thus far—the familiar faces of fellow pilgrims, the reassuring relief of a warm bed each night, the rhythmic meditation of putting one foot in front of the other, the joy of accomplishment in having walked so far. The compassion with which she spoke and her invitational and non-judgmental spirit sent a hush over the gathered crowd.

The evening ended with a song of blessing from the nuns: “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.” As the nuns sang, the mother superior circulated through the room, looking each pilgrim in the eye with great love, gazing past the smelly synthetic t-shirts, torn zip-off pants and muddy boots, and slowly, deliberately making the sign of the cross on each of our foreheads.

The nuns’ hospitality of spirit, and their tireless effort to gently inspire and comfort pilgrims night after night, helped inspire me to return to the Camino and co-author a guidebook to support others walking along The Way.

Thousands of volunteers come to fill the role of hospitalero (host) in albergues to serve walkers and keep the spirit of hospitality and support alive. This service reflects empathy and gratitude as former pilgrims return armed with an intimate knowledge of what a walking pilgrim needs.

When David and I returned to the Camino to re-walk the path and conduct research for our guidebook, the strain of 500 miles overwhelmed us one day. We were both tired and cranky, sniping at each other and indecisive on where to walk to next as we sat on a park bench in the city of Astorga in the León region of Spain, still over 150 miles from our goal of Santiago de Compostela.

An older woman with a British accent approached us: “Where are you sleeping tonight?” We told her we didn’t know since we weren’t sure how much energy we had for walking the rest of that day. “Well, I’m serving as hostess in a guesthouse in the village of Rabanal del Camino, about 12 miles away, nestled in the Cantabrian mountains. I’m here with a car to stock up on provisions. It’s really a special place. I’ll save you a bed there tonight,” she concluded with a cheery wink.

This kind interaction restored a bit of our walking energy. Deciding that any such invitation was a call in itself, we hoisted our backpacks and marched up the winding path. We didn’t arrive at the guesthouse until dusk, and a chill had entered the air. The hostess welcomed us warmly with hot tea and cookies. This was indeed a rare guesthouse, in a restored traditional house and sponsored by the Confraternity of Saint James in the UK. They ask only for a donation of whatever the pilgrim can afford to spend the night.

Normally pilgrim guesthouses offer dormitory accommodations, sometimes with up to 50 people in the same room, so privacy is scarce. This kind woman led us to a dormitory room full of beds, but we were the only people assigned to this room. After a hot shower, she insisted that I come to her private apartment and use her hairdryer so I would not be too cold with wet hair.

After a glorious night in our quiet private room, we were served breakfast in the kitchen. Rushing to get an early start, I took my dirty dishes to the sink to wash up. The hostess stopped me and said she would wash the dishes. I tried to insist, but she conspiratorially whispered, “We like to spoil you here.” I set out walking with tears in my eyes, touched and refreshed by the kind woman who saw a grumpy bickering couple on a park bench and rather than judge them, extended generosity, care and hospitality.

Camino Carrion
The nuns of Santa María in Carrión de los Condes sing a blessing for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. Photo by David Landis

Pilgrimage to Abraham

My lech lecha call came full circle back to the story of Abraham in 2012, when David and I began working with the Abraham Path Initiative, an organization dedicated to developing a long-distance walking path across the Middle East that follows the cultural memory of Abraham and highlights the Abrahamic hospitality along the way. The grand vision of the trail is to stretch from the traditional places of Abraham’s birth (Urfa in Turkey in Islamic tradition, and Ur in Iraq in Judeo-Christian tradition) all the way to his tomb in Hebron in the heart of the West Bank, as well as to extend to other places of Abrahamic memory such as Mecca and the Sinai Peninsula.

While the geopolitics of the region do not allow this entire dream to be realized at this point in history, the path currently has over 1000 miles of mapped trail through Turkey, Jordan, Palestine and Israel. Local communities on a grassroots level are empowered to develop tourism services along the path.

A walk along the Abraham Path inevitably leads to a generous outpouring. A farmer hands me a juicy fennel bulb from the pile he is harvesting, a family calls from their balcony to come have tea with them, a well-meaning driver offers a ride to the “crazy foreigners” trekking through the fields and hills of his country. This deep hospitality and generosity is often associated with the tradition that Abraham’s tent was open on all four sides to allow guests to easily enter. From Urfa to Hebron, local soup kitchens offer “Abraham’s soup” to anyone in need of a meal.

A few years ago, a delegation of Abraham Path supporters traveled to southern Turkey and were walking along the path near Harran, an important city to the Abrahamic narrative located near the present-day Syrian border. In one village, a local Kurdish man greeted the group and inquired about the nationalities of the group members. We each named our diverse countries of origin, including two individuals who hailed from nations at war with each other. The local man’s eyes grew wide and he said incredulously, “But . . . don’t you hate each other?” One of the two responded immediately by holding up his hand with an open palm and pointing at two of his own fingers. “Can this finger hate this one?” he asked.

A pilgrimage route interrupted by instability is nothing new. The Camino also went through periods of disuse and rerouting due to conflicts between Christians and Muslims in medieval Spain. Tides of empires have risen and fallen since Abraham’s primordial journey, and current events are only a snapshot in the timeless horizon. In spite of present-day limitations, the groundwork is being laid to invite local and international walkers to relive a portion of Abraham’s expedition and to soak in the hospitality and friendship along the way. In the face of discouraging news in the region, the path offers a hopeful manifestation of the timeless values and landscapes that echo back 4000 years and forward into an unwritten history yet to come.

The Journey begins with a call, followed by the first of a million steps, vulnerable, into the unknown. The hospitality and generosity along the way sustains and transforms. My humble call in Virginia, propelled by a thousand small generosities, has shaped my life’s work to encourage and facilitate others in experiencing transformational pilgrimage.

The author and her family walking in view of Mar Saba monastery along the Abraham Path in the West Bank. Photo by Frits Meyst courtesy of Abraham Path Initiative

About the Author

Anna Dintaman

Anna Dintaman works in Jerusalem as Program Manager at Abraham Path Initiative, which is creating a hiking trail across the Middle East. She has co-authored two important guidebooks for walking pilgrimage: Hiking the Jesus Trail and Other Biblical Walks in the Galilee (2010) and Hiking the Camino de Santiago (Camino Frances 2013). She spent 2008-12 researching and developing the Jesus Trail and continues to be self-employed as guidebook author for Village to Village Press. Her hiking repertoire includes the Camino Frances, the Camino del Norte, the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, Torres del Paine in Chile and numerous other treks around the world. She loves hiking and loves stories, and finds pilgrimage walking routes to be a perfect marriage of the two. Her home base in the U.S. is Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she graduated from Eastern Mennonite University, majoring in Culture, Religion and Mission. Her websites include www.Jesustrail.com, www.hikingthecamino.com, and www.abrahampath.org.