I estimate that I’ve saved $11 a day on my MetroCard by walking this summer. It started out as an impulse (It’s only a few blocks–I should just walk) and turned into a daily practice where I am no longer startled when I look up and see a green sign declaring that I’ve arrived on Christopher Street when I know I started at 86th Street. I now average 15,000 steps a day.
Not all of us can imagine walking long distances with gusto. I was raised on period dramas where I pictured myself as Elizabeth Bennet treading over stretches of British countryside to call on neighbors. Walking felt like a good fit for someone who enjoys being outside, inhaling the fresh air, and meandering through nature.
Walking felt natural until I challenged myself to walk block after block on a sun-scorched sidewalk in New York City. After the first 15, my shoulders were ribboned with red stripes as my bag dug into them. Sweat slid down my legs, and the air seemed to cling to my throat, thick and unable to escape. I realized that walking is not always fun; when you commit to walking miles out of necessity, it can feel downright torturous.
I like to walk, like settling into the methodical rotations of my feet meeting the ground with steady rhythm. I walked to my summer job at IHOP when I was a teenager, and I walked around every inch of my college campus. Now I calculate my steps as I cross boroughs, and the first time I walked over 50 blocks, I felt it. Every jolt of my foot against the concrete charted a pathway of weariness rather than leisure–but I kept going.
As much as my feet ache when I pace myself through the length of unending avenues, the altered vision it gives me is unparalleled.
By walking, I see the neighborhood. My eyes and ears catch the details I would have missed if I was whizzing past in a car or stuck in a fortified metal box underground. On the ground level, everything is realized in lucid detail, made HD. I suddenly see the pile of leather dress shoes tossed on a bench and wonder whom they belong to. Crumpled newspaper pages and empty beer bottles and cigarette butts compose the mosaic of the sidewalk. A man with a stained overcoat rocks himself against the fence of Fort Tryon Park, a cardboard sign with rain-dripped letters set beside him. A brother and sister splash with flailing brown arms under the water that arcs from an uncapped fire hydrant, water flooding the street. The clink of dominoes melds with the chirps of birds and the distant strains of bachata as I walk through the 190s.
I see the neighborhoods change. I step under bridges and cross crowded streets and watch where white becomes brown, where penthouses and gourmet coffee shops become graffitied apartment complexes and legal and immigration offices on every corner.
When you walk long distances in a city, everything becomes personal. The skip from train to train or train to workplace doesn’t allow you the time to inhabit the rhythms of your environment or imbibe the sights your eyes draw in. But when you’ve been in the same neighborhood for over an hour, some of it belongs to you because the echo of your steps joins the clamor, the symphony of noise in the place–now you’re part of it. You will not forget that block of organic produce vendors you turned, that woman with pink leggings and a suit jacket selling necklaces whom you walked past, that clenching of your stomach when you saw an old man begging for coins with streams of Godblessyous. You, the outsider, get a glimpse of a million other worlds and find yourself lingering.
Poverty, privilege; gentrification, community; racism, multicultural equity escape the boundary of ideological labels and take human form as your steps lead you in absorbing your environment and probing its innumerable meanings. But it’s a privilege in itself to walk through a neighborhood and understand that you don’t need to stay. You will keep going, leave those people behind in the stories you don’t know. You will miss the tears punctuating that strain of conversation you caught, the life-changing movement under-girding the expression you glanced on that woman’s face. What if you walked back?
New York City presents the temptation to look straight ahead and orient yourself to your destination with laser-focused efficiency. It’s easy to miss what is going on around you when you’re absorbed in the mapping of destinations and relevant persons and necessary stops that comprise your life. What enters the circumference of space around your body, what you allow to matter, relies upon your vision–what you allow yourself to see.
The challenge lies in the choice to lift your eyes, turn your head, and slow your steps, take them further. Once we have seen something outside of our usual sphere of experience, God asks us to respond to that stimulus or else risk continuing forward, heavy with unanswered questions and unexplained grief. What will we carry as we walk ahead, and will we ever return to that geographic place and mental space and remember those we left behind?
I think of those intrepid people who made El Camino Del Inmigrante last week. They answered the challenge of 150 miles from Tijuana, Mexico to Los Angeles (location of this year’s Christian Community Development Association conference) and trailed the steps of immigrants who face intense injustice both within this country and on a global scale. As a friend of mine and activist who made that journey put it:
Many of us share the same story of immigration, but we have become detached from it. It is only in stepping into the story of immigration that we will be able to understand the complicated issue of immigration in our country.
It is time that we examine our hands. It is time that we examine the blood that runs through our veins. It is time that we ask ourselves how our ancestors had to suffer in order for us to be alive. By turning inward, we can begin to understand how we fit into the greater narrative of America, and thus, how we can further shape it.
Jenny and so many others embraced sore shoulders and aching feet and the sacrifice of days spent with dusty road stretching before them to inhabit the experiences of their neighbors for what amounts to a brief step in time. Their commitment, however, to the people who grapple with the daily realities of immigration reflects a lifetime posture–a Gospel posture. They chose to linger in a geographic space that allowed them to draw close to suffering people, whether they were familiar with those experiences or not. Rather than idle wanderings or a routine Point A to Point B trajectory, their steps made known hundreds of neglected histories so others like me could catch that vision of the realities they already see.
Immigrants are easy targets in this country. They are labeled invaders and leeches and those who are undocumented are condemned with little endeavor to truly understand what steps took them here. I have observed that many White Americans especially are quick to judge, slow to walking the long, aching stretch of another’s story, allowing the dust and refuse to touch them. The walk is far more painful than people imagine, and far more complicated than expected when the sun sears your skin and freedom appears as a mirage, unattainable because of where and how you were born.
What if more of us took seriously the challenge to go beyond “walking in another’s shoes” to walk in our shoes, with our feet, alongside our neighbors? For instance, for those without direct family ties to recent immigrants, you may never fully know the intimate experience of the struggles they encounter. Nevertheless, by tracing their journey with your own two feet, acknowledging your history, your position on the map of this world, you can commit yourself to the transformation of your reality and compassionate engagement with others who need your advocacy. We leave our self-absorbed circle of experience and look around us, fixing on the details of other people’s stories and allowing them to matter to us. We stop walking past. We walk back, through our past, through our ignorance, through our preconceptions, to meet others on the road.
I say “walking in our own shoes with our neighbors” rather than “walking in another’s shoes” because the former avoids the reflex to think that just because we’ve heard the tough stories and cry over them like we do over Netflix documentaries, we are absolved from taking a further active role in challenging injustice. Walking is not a paternalistic exercise that allows us to lament the pain of others from a distance, comfortably stagnant in our usual commute. It should pull us closer to the communities that we were not born into–it should remind us that they belong to us. If compassion is “suffering with” another person, then our walks should take us out of our routines and in step with others as they make the journeys they must to survive. When our feet feel the ache after a day, knowing they have walked miles and developed calluses, our hearts widen to accommodate more love and grace for our friends and neighbors than we ever thought possible.
What does walking look like practically? (hint: it doesn’t mean we all have to buy Fitbits and get our steps in). Walking alongside others in the pursuit of their welfare necessitates embracing their pain and validating it. It involves us educating ourselves about the issues facing the poor, the marginalized, the immigrant and asking God what is our role to play in engaging them. It requires incarnating Christ by intentionally building friendships with those different from ourselves and being willing to sacrifice our comfort so their needs are met. It demands moving our embodied selves in step with our neighbors and doing life with them.
I challenge myself to keep walking when the sun is out, the heat rises, and the sweat pools on my brow. I challenge myself to walk when it rains. I will not walk only when the world is conveniently temperate or glazed in twilight–that would be too late. El tiempo para caminar es hoy, siempre hoy para que no cometemos el error de creer que vivimos en un mundo de asíntotas, donde nuestros caminos individuales nunca cruzar. Cuando dolores de los pies de una parte de nuestro Cuerpo, debemos todos sienten el dolor y avanzar hacia ellos y con ellos. No existe mayor privilegio y amor que camina con tu vecino más allá del espejismo, hacia la libertad.
The time to walk is today, always today so that we do not make the mistake of believing that we live in a world of asymptotes, our individual paths never crossing. When the feet of one part of our Body aches, we should all feel the pain and move towards them and with them. There is no greater privilege and love than walking with your neighbor past the mirage, towards freedom.