On Feb. 23, I left my home of 13 years in Turnersville, N.J., to travel cross country to Lodi, Calif. I was relocating for a new call as associate pastor and Spanish language minister at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Lodi.
My family and I decided I would drive solo, accompanied by our trusty Siberian husky, Lucas. I’d always wanted to take a cross-country trip, plus it was less costly than flying with Lucas. My wife and children would fly to our new city on March 2, just in time for my March 3 installation.
Leaving behind the congregation I served for 13 years and heading to a new call felt like being in the wilderness. As I made the 2,844-mile road trip, I encountered unexpected blessings.
Our first stop was in the birth place of country music—Bristol, Va. Lucas and I arrived at our pet-friendly hotel around 9 p.m. The staff welcomed Lucas with a treat and seemed genuinely happy to pet him. I was tired and so was Lucas; we both went to bed as soon as we crossed into our room.
Breaking for worship
The next day we woke up early and, after asking God to be with us on our journey, we headed southwest toward Nashville, Tenn. Once in Nashville, the Spirit drove me to worship at First Lutheran Church in Nashville, where Pam Smith is pastor.
I attended their early service. I confessed my sins, sang and prayed with the members of First Lutheran. I listened to the word preached by Vicar Tara Fleck, intern at First Lutheran. At the end of the service I introduced myself to Pastor Pam and Vicar Tara. They greeted me and sent me on my way with prayers. Thanks be to God for the ministry of the people of First Lutheran, an inviting and diverse congregation at the heart of Nashville.
The stop at First Lutheran was like an oasis in the middle of a long journey. Thanks be to God’s Spirit who leads us to community even when we feel alone on our journey.
Food and familiarity
After Nashville, we headed West and stopped in Little Rock, Ark. While we were there, I went to a Creole-Mexican-Southern restaurant. It was great to see immigrants, locals and sojourners like me enjoying a wonderful meal in peace and appreciation for the hard work of the restaurant staff. After the meal, I went back to our hotel and crashed.
From Little Rock, Lucas and I continued west toward Amarillo, Texas. In Amarillo, the Southwestern background and its ambience was all around me, and I knew I was no longer in known territory. Even though I had been to Texas during the ELCA Youth Gathering (Dallas in 1991; San Antonio in 2006) everything there felt foreign. Even the sunlight felt different.
After checking in at the hotel, I went to a wonderful Mexican restaurant and ordered food in my native Spanish. It was great to see other fellow Spanish speakers proudly displaying their heritage and culture in a welcoming and inviting way. Suddenly Amarillo didn’t feel so foreign anymore.
The next day, after walking Lucas, I drove us toward Flagstaff, Ariz., where we stayed the night.
The next morning we looked outside our hotel and saw vehicles covered with 5 inches of snow. No one told me it snowed in Arizona! Although I lived in New Jersey for 13 years, I am originally from Puerto Rico and had no clue God blessed the people of the Southwest with their own version of the Pocono Mountains.
I was one of the few with a snow brush, coming from New Jersey. I felt called to help those who did not have a way to clear their vehicles of snow, so I ended up delaying my departure a little to help.
I ended up speaking with all kinds of people—Mexican Americans, Ohioans that had moved west and even some Arizonians.
This incident reminded me of the words of Jesus: “And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward” (Matthew 10:42). There are no unworthy deeds done for the sake of our neighbor, no matter how big or small they may seem. God can use a tool as simple as a snow brush to create community, break barriers and allow the divine light to shine. I learned that in Flagstaff.
A warm welcome
Lucas really enjoyed the snow while we were in Flagstaff. Sadly, he won’t be seeing lots of it in Lodi.
After more than 10 hours in the car, Lucas and I arrived at our new home in Lodi. Our things had arrived that same morning and Mark Price, the senior pastor of St. Paul, and members of the congregation organized all our boxes and supervised the installation of our beds. They’d arranged everything so we could start our journey in comfort.
Without all the people that I knew, those I met during the trip and my new church family, this trip would not have been possible. This trip taught me that when we feel lonely, if we look closely, we’ll find God reminding us we are never alone. God is always with us, and God created a large human family so we can care for each other.
Thanks be to God for being with Lucas and I through our journey and thanks be to God for those who accompany us through prayers, support and hospitality. Now another journey begins.