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Are All Shoes Made for Walking?

Dr. Mindy McGarrah Sharp
Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology & Ethics
Phillips Theological Seminary
November 2013 

“We make the road by walking” has become a famous saying by Brazilian education philosopher Paulo Freire (1921-1997). Of note, Freire first made this statement aloud in conversation with a walking partner before it was written and theorized in a text that one might read in a formal seminary classroom. The idea that “we make the road by walking” has informed my own research, writing, and teaching since I began my doctoral work out of my Peace Corps service. “We make the road by walking” also informs the Borderlinks educational philosophy and experience. 

At the end of October 2013, I attended my third one-week Borderlinks delegation to the U.S.-Mexico borderlands with Phillips Theological Seminary. Phillips has had a long and steady presence learning about the borderlands; Borderlinks, with whom we have worked for years, shared with me once again this year that their bi-national staff look forward to the annual Phillips delegation. Why do we go to the border? Why do we keep going back? Among other reasons, we learn that “border issues” are not limited to their intense embodiment along any physical international border, but indeed affect and involve all of us as human beings, Christians, theologians, ministry leaders, consumers, and U.S. citizens. Phillips students and leaders (Dr. Don Pittman, Dr. Brandon Scott, and myself) look forward to this transformational learning opportunity. However, we don’t always know just what we are walking into as we collect our papers, read and write about theologies and economic policies that affect the borderlands, prepare our passports, pack, and leave our homes.

This year, “we make the road by walking” was on my mind and heart as I learned about borders in community with students, local teachers, and amazing guides. Consider the following fragments of stories about shoes and walking from this year’s Borderlinks experience.

The morning after ten students and I arrived in Tucson, we joined our amazing bi-national leadership partnership team of a Borderlinks staff person and a HEPAC* staff person for a desert walk. (*The name HEPAC stands for El Hogar de Esperanza y Paz in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, which translates “the home of hope and peace”). To help us learn about the borderlands that first morning, we set out to experience just a little bit of what it is like to walk in the desert. We duct-taped our shoes, trusting our rancher guide that everything in the desert has thorns and that duct tape would help protect our feet along the way. Even with our most informed preparations, we stopped frequently to remove prickly thorns from our socks and shoes that we received from cacti, jumping chollas, and diverse desert grasses. As a group, our shoes were made to walk the desert as long as we had a knowledgeable and patient guide, collective willingness to walk slowly and carefully, and plenty of water and sunscreen in the hot desert sun. 

Along the way, we learned that many of our international neighbors come to the United States seeking not necessarily citizenship, but short term employment. We were particularly fortunate on this delegation to have opportunities to speak to a diverse group of people from ranchers to law enforcement to humanitarian aid workers to ministers to factory workers to coffee roasters who live in the borderlands and who hold a variety of opinions about and vocations along both sides of the U.S-Mexico border. Across vast differences, all agreed that current U.S. immigration policy needs reform. The physical border wall, border militarization, and policies that restrict legal immigration to international neighbors who have money, connections, multiple language fluency, and lots of time (up to 20+ years from application to initial visa if all eligibility requirements are met. These reasons and more funnel economic migrants with urgent needs and/or little resources to walk the desert at night in search of work for and with their families. We learned that while overall immigration is down to some of the lowest numbers in a long time, more families including women and children now attempt to cross the desert. A greater percentage of people are dying on this walk today than in the past. We learned that most of our international neighbors walk the desert at night quickly, hastily, without much water, and without a guide with time and resources to spare. We learned that people who can’t keep up are left behind. 

Shoes are not made for walking the desert quickly, hastily, and without a patient, resourceful guide. No one can walk the desert without water. Many people lose their precious belongings and even their lives attempting to walk the very desert that the Phillips delegation walked. Our guide showed us some of the lost material things and indeed markers of lost lives that/who had been found on and near her property. Although lost material things are often called “basura” (Spanish for trash), it was quickly clear that the found handwoven cloths, photographs, notebooks, medicines, prayer cards, bibles, books, phone numbers, and shoes were not trash but sacred treasure. And if people walking treasured these material things, we wondered how God treasures people of all walks of life, each one made in God’s image. We were particularly struck by a child’s shoe left and lost on someone’s desert walk.

Bare feet are definitely not made for walking the desert. And yet, shoes are left behind in the desert. On Sunday, the Phillips delegation attended Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, a vibrant faith community whose story includes navigating and engaging border issues in different ways throughout its history. A sculpture in the church’s outdoor prayer garden was made using left behind shoes of all shapes and sizes that were found in the desert. Each rock at the base of the sculpture memorializes a human being who died crossing the desert.

Another day, we walked with another neighbor who lives and works as a rancher and whose property is adjacent to the border wall to a place where the current border wall ends and hauntingly beautiful mountainous terrain begins. I noticed that his shoes had an American flag pinned to them. This was a provocative image: a meaning-laden flag with shoes that had come to spark my personal reflections of walking. What does it mean to walk toward liberty and justice for all?

Borders are not inherently bad, but indeed important to mark out spaces for and within healthy communities. Borders always affect where and with whom any one of us human beings may walk. If Freire is right that we make the way by walking, we must ask a series of questions: We make the way from where and to where? Why? Who is included and excluded in this “we”? Are all shoes made for this walking? Is all walking oriented toward creating a more just way of life? Where is God in this walking? In and with whose shoes does God’s presence reside? What is a faithful response to this powerful witness of shoes and experience of walking? I came away from the border experience convinced again that a child shall lead us on a way in which no child’s shoes will be left behind and called basura. Let us work toward a world in which all shoes are made for walking and where walking is a communal activity that leads to life.

Resources for further reading:

  • Bell, Brenda, John Gaventa and John Peters, Eds. We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990
  • Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. NY: Herder and Herder, 1970.
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