Compassion on the Camino de Santiago

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34 days. That’s how long it took Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray to hike 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago. In itself, that’s a real accomplishment, but their journey was so much more than that. That’s because Justin is in a wheelchair, and Patrick pushed — and pulled — his friend the entire way. The Camino trail, also known as the Way of St. James, is the name of a series of routes that end in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The hike — which many consider a spiritual pilgrimage — includes mud, rocks and boulders, ascents through the Pyrenees Mountains, and days of unchanging views through long plateaus. Every step of the way, Patrick was there to make sure he and his friend finished together, despite the fact that Justin doesn’t have the use of his legs or arms due to a degenerative autoimmune disease.

What in the world motivated two friends to try to accomplish what many said could never be done?

“A lot of it was driven by faith,” Justin says. “It was going through whatever door opened — for both Patrick and I. … The common thread is trusting in God and faith. He’s never let me down — ever.”

He adds, “A lot of prayer went into it. I’ve never been to the altar so many times in my life. Patrick and I were at the altar, just letting it go and letting it go, over and over and over again.”

Both Justin, a Point Loma Nazarene University alum, and Patrick, a Northwest Nazarene University alum, insist that a friendship with God at its center was also key.

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We sometimes think of compassion as some kind of one-way action — giving food to someone who is hungry or giving a bed to someone who is homeless. What Justin and Patrick learned is that deep compassion is a two-way thing — and allowing someone to push you can be a gift in itself.

Justin shares, “There’s a saying I’ve heard: When you deny the opportunity for someone to help you, you deny them the joy in life. By letting people help me, they actually receive in return.”

Along the Camino, Patrick wasn’t the only one doing the pushing. At one particularly difficult section of the trail, it took 17 people to get Justin up a steep mountain pass. Many of those who came along to help were strangers.

“What I found in all of that was when I allowed people to push me, they in turn get pushed,” Justin says. “I would always say, ‘Hey, thank you for pushing me.’ And almost 100 percent of the time, they would say, ‘No, thank you.’ I’m still wrapping my mind around what that means. … I was able to allow people to be a part of a journey if they wanted to.”

Justin and Patrick’s story offers a great reminder: True compassion is relational. It’s a deeply human connection that requires us to see and know another person.

But when there’s a two-way relationship of giving and receiving, people change. It’s a thing we like to call transformation.

The next leg of Justin and Patrick’s journey is the production of a documentary titled I’ll Push You. To learn more about their story and to see how you can support the film, check out their Kickstarter page.

If you’re interested in having Justin or Patrick come speak to your church or organization, you can email justin@illpushyou.com.