Samuel Clear does not take Jesus’ John 17 prayer lightly. Troubled by the distrust and arrogance exhibited by so many Christian denominations towards one another, this 30 year old Catholic Aussie recently covered 15,500 km on foot in 564 days, praying for worldwide Christian unity. Spectrum asked Sam about his physical journey and his ecumenical vision.
Question: You could have written letters, given public speeches, or prayed privately for Christian unity. What inspired you to get up and walk around the world?
Answer: In actual fact I did begin by writing letters (emails) inviting Christians to pray for unity. But often I heard excuses about how unity will only exist when all the “other” so-called Christians read the Bible and join the right church (usually their church). I finally admitted that many people just don’t care that the body of Christ is broken. They don’t want to grow in their capacity to love and forgive. That was very hard for me to accept.
The walk around the world began as a very simple plan: I would walk, pray, and invite those I met along the way to also pray. It is easy to ignore a no-name person sending out emails or delivering speeches, but we are likely to listen to someone who speaks with us face to face. The walk was my way to get the invitation to prayer out there.
Question: What was your route? Who sponsored and supported you? Answer: I traveled from one side of the Atlantic to the other. But since I haven’t learned to walk on water yet, that meant heading northwest from the eastern tip of Brazil, across Venezuela and Colombia, up through Central America and Mexico, across Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, and all the way up to Edmonton. I then flew to eastern Russia (Vladivostok), took the trans-Siberian railway to Moscow (it was -40°F in Siberia), and headed off on foot again from the Red Square. I finished at the western most tip of Spain.
I sought no sponsorship other than everyone’s prayers. I sold my car and funded the journey with my own savings, depending on the generous hospitality of people along the way. I didn’t have a support crew with me on the road, but I did have a group of friends back home in Australia spreading the invitation to pray for unity. They were a constant source of encouragement and practical advice.
Question: Where did you stay night to night? Who were some of the most interesting people you met on your journey?
Answer: I stayed wherever I could: hotels, hostels, road sides, on farms, in churches, in people’s houses, etc. In Texas I even locked myself in a public toilet, since it was the only safe place I could find!
The most memorable overnight stay I had was with a young family in the Panamanian highlands. There was nowhere to stay in the small village, but a 23 year old man named Adolfo invited me to put my hammock up in the 4x8 foot tin shed he shared with his wife and daughter. They didn’t have any food, but he set out to his neighbor’s place and came back with a bread roll and a slice of sausage for my dinner.
The next morning he cut lemon grass and boiled it into a tea before cutting a length of sugar cane and popping it into my backpack for the 35km walk I had planned for that day. He then cried as he asked me to remember and pray for him. He was not from that village but had fallen in love with a woman and moved there to marry her. A few years later he still hadn’t found employment or made any close friends.
The day after I left he planned to leave his wife and daughter behind to travel to Panama City in search of work, and he was unsure how many months it would be before he would be able to return. It was very difficult for me to walk on that day. He had so little, but still he gave me all he could. I wondered what I, who had a lot comparatively, could ever give back.
Question: Did you have any scary experiences while out there on the road all alone?
Answer: Yes, many. I was held at gun-point twice in Venezuela (they thought I was American). I was also robbed at knife-point in Costa Rica and had rocks (and other objects) thrown at me by passing cars in many countries. I was beaten by two men in Russia, and refused accommodation in many places.
I also met my fair share of wild animals. I managed to dodge a number of striking snakes along the way, but the ‘great escape’ was in South America where I walked to within four feet of a puma (mountain lion). I had already walked 63km without running into any civilization, and it was nearing midnight as I walked along a country road. Suddenly I met a big cat that was not of the purring variety! It was the most isolated and scared I felt on my entire journey. Thankfully the puma didn’t follow when I backed away slowly and walked 3km back up the road to sleep in the grass. I was dehydrated and had gone for fifteen hours without food. The next morning brought easily the most anticipated sunrise of my life!
Question: How did your understanding of Christianity expand as you traveled and met believers all around the world? How did people respond to your mission and how did you find your convictions challenged?
Answer: My view of Christianity didn’t change a great deal. We are one church with many divisions. I guess the most obvious lesson I learned was that denominationalism aside, one will always find those who are “in the faith,” and those who are not. People from every denomination I came in contact with received me with love. But there were also people from those same denominations who rejected me harshly. I even had a Pentecostal preacher push me to the ground once, pin me down, and pray over me. Since I am Catholic by affiliation, I found it particularly difficult to see Catholics living non-Christian lives. It’s difficult to witness ignorance and arrogance within your own Church.
A few people tried to pick fights, but as long as my invitation to unity in truth and love was kept simple, I was generally welcomed. After the first few months I chose to stop telling people I was Catholic, as it was too often used as the device to either accept or reject the call to prayer.
Question: As a Catholic, what does your ideal of Christian “unity” look like? Some Protestants get uncomfortable when they hear Catholics talk about unity because they fear that what is really desired is for Protestantism to just melt back into Catholicism. What do you say to this?
Answer: In John 17 Jesus prayed for the complete unity of Christians. I guess we must start by deciding upon what it means to be “completely united.” I see complete unity as being comprised of two parts: unity in truth and unity in love. From scripture we see that a united church loves one another in such a way that no one is unwanted and no one lives in poverty or fear. One doesn’t have to travel far to see that Christians are not united in love!
As for unity in truth, well, we are a long way off from that ideal too! It is going to require an unfathomable quantity of grace in order for Christians to be fully united in truth and in love. We must seek one another humbly, never stooping to ridicule or condemnation. We must call each other closer to the Lord.
The fact that we are brothers and sisters in the Lord is our point of beginning. It is from that common place that we must move forward towards forgiveness, understanding, and eventually, unified truth. Essentially, unity is love in action.
Question: Do you see the younger generation taking more of an interest in ecumenism? What is it looking like, practically?
Answer: Perhaps. But there are also many people a few generations older than me who have been praying for and working for unity all of their adult lives. There certainly is a beautiful platform for respectful dialogue among the younger generations, however. It is true that most of the bitterness I have encountered both here in Australia and overseas has come from the older generations. While traveling it was usually the 15 to 35 year olds who wanted most eagerly to enter into dialogue and prayer together.
Question: What word would you have for Seventh-day Adventists and other historically sectarian or “puritan” denominations? Answer: First of all, we are all called to a more "pure" worship of God, and over the centuries God’s faithful have tried to help each other along that path through various means. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has done this beautifully, and I feel quite at home among your people.
Perhaps one of the major stumbling blocks preventing us from worshipping together on the Adventist side is the propaganda that aligns the Catholic Church with the Whore of Babylon and the Pope with the Anti-Christ.
I think that most of the anti-Catholic sentiment in Adventism comes from how people interpret the writings of people such as Ellen White. I believe she was fallible. Just for the record, I believe that as a man the Pope is also fallible! He confesses his sins daily to the man who preaches to him and his staff each morning. When he speaks, he speaks as a man (with a German accent!) When he writes, he writes as a man. In the Catholic Church, an infallible statement only applies to doctrine that God has revealed through Holy Scripture and the Holy Spirit working in the Catholic Church. As a man, the Pope is not held to be infallible. Information on infallible papal statements can be found at at http://www.catholic.com/library/Papal_Infallibility.asp
If we could agree that the Whore of Babylon refers to something besides the Catholic Church and that the Anti-Christ is not the Pope per se, then we might find a lot to talk about! What a humbling and yet exciting journey it could be. The more I’ve learned about Seventh-day Adventism, the more I’ve come to realize that what I had previously heard about Adventism was nothing more than lies and slander. I’ve heard many lies and half-truths slammed against the Catholic Church as well. Now we must seek Christ and search the Holy Scriptures together.
Question: After devoting one and a half years to the discipline of prayer, how have you seen your prayer life deepened? Answer: Mother Teresa used to say that the closer she came to God the further she realized she was from him. For me it was similar. I used to think I had a good prayer life, but as I walked and was forced to trust God and listen for his voice day-in day-out, I realized how fragile my relationship with Christ actually was. It’s a struggle now being back in Australia and having “work” to do. I miss walking down the road, contemplating Christ and walking with him. I’m thankful that we have a humble and loving God who allows us to simply talk to him, to confide in him and seek his advice. He is most certainly trustworthy!
Question: What was the most spiritually significant or memorable part of your trip?
Answer: Learning that God is trustworthy. Once I had to travel 98 miles through the Wyoming Rockies while it was -15°F. I knew it would take three days to walk it, and that there was no civilization along the route apart from two ranches set back off the road. I could only carry enough food and water for 50 miles (halfway), and since I knew the night time temperature could kill me, I very seriously thought about taking the bus. In the silence of contemplation I heard the Lord speak one word: “Trust.” Not wanting to argue, I went to bed, rose at 4am the next morning, and set off into the dark wilderness.
Only a few hours in, the stinging wind swung to the west and warmed up so much that all the snow melted by the end of the day. I camped out in Shirley Basin with wildlife all around but woke at 3:30am with ice hanging from my tent and snow mask! With my water frozen, I walked on across the basin to warm up until 9:00am when I saw a red truck rumbling towards me. The gentleman wound down his window and asked, “What in the heck are you doin’ out here?” I told him exactly what I was doing and he looked at me with wide eyes and blurted out, “Hallelujah, Jesus!” He then reached down and produced a huge bottle of Gatorade and some Snickers bars.
That evening I arrived at one of the ranches and went to ask for permission to set my tent down at the front fence. As I pushed open the door there was a power failure and the place was plummeted into darkness. I flicked my headlamp on, lighting up three cowboys standing against the railing. The head cowboy, Jet, looked over at me and said, “I don’t know who you are, but I’m glad you’re here!” Jet allowed me to set my tent up at the rodeo stadium and returned an hour later with a home-cooked meal and provisions for the rest of my journey.
I arrived in Casper late in the afternoon, and with bleeding feet and a chest infection, I began knocking on church doors to extend the invitation to pray for unity. The very last church was a Catholic Church and the priest answered the door. He looked me up and down and said, “My dinner is on the table getting cold and my team (the Rockies) are about to play in the World Series. This is the most inappropriate time possible, but God only puts people into my life at inappropriate times. Can I find you somewhere to sleep?” Father Fox did just that – he booked me for two nights at the Marriott Hotel. The next day I was greeted by newspaper and television reporters wanting to hear my story, and so the invitation went out all across Wyoming. And it all came about because of one simple action: trust.
Question: How has your journey affected the future course of your life?
Answer: After so many near misses I am now very aware of my mortality! I will die when the Lord calls me, and I have no idea when that might be. Between now and then I simply hope that everything I do is done with him, even to the cross.
At this very moment I am employed as the project coordinator for a 614km proposed pilgrimage route across the island state of Tasmania off the southeast of Australia. It will be a track set aside for people to walk and pray, to find God in silence, and to meet and share with other pilgrims in the Lord.
Question: We probably can’t all leave our jobs and go walk around the world. What can Christians do to work for unity in their own contexts?
Answer: Pray, pray, and pray some more. Ask God to show you what you can do. Ask for the opportunity to be drawn further into the truth of who he is and who we are as a universal Christian Church. Be discerning and read as much as you can. If you are interested in a particular subject, read about it in publications that are not put out by your own church. Above all else, love one another as he loved us.
Samuel Clear is a mechanical engineer and sports enthusiast living in Tasmania, Australia. His travel blog can still be accessed at http://walk4one.blogspot.com/
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1587