In 2004, I signed up for the Susan G. Komen Three Day, a 60 mile Walk for Breast Cancer, promoted as “the greatest distance you can go in the fight against breast cancer.” Participants raise $2500, and then, over a period of three days, walk approximately 20 miles a day. We camped at night in two-person tents on a giant sports field. The rest of the camp was spread out over a large area – with tents for food and hospitality, medical needs, a memorial or prayer space, and large shower trucks. So, there was quite a bit of walking around camp just to meet your physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs.
The whole experience was grueling. Very uncomfortable. Very challenging. Very emotional.
One rule of the Three Day is that there is no running. Everyone must walk. This is not your typical 5K, 10K, half-marathon. The journey is the thing–not crossing the finish line, not a personal best time. This created some tension for me–I could see it in other women, too. There were those who were determined to be the first on the trail each day, and they were constantly checking their split times at each pit stop, rushing through the port-a-potty line, fueling up, and taking off again.
Part of me wanted to do that as well. I had trained really hard. I was in good shape. I could be at the front of the pack, but my partner was about half my height, and we had worked for four months to get a comfortable pace for both of us–so that we could do this together–in honor of her friend, Molly. I had to slow down, and she had to speed up to get into a rhythm we could share and maintain for three days and 60 miles.
The first night in camp, I was exhausted. Irritable. So tired of all these women. I stood in line outside a truck to take a shower trying not to cry. Poor, poor pitiful me. Then I heard bells ringing, whistles blowing, clapping, and cheering, sounds of celebration, and I watched these dead-tired women with knee braces and ankle tape start running to the front of camp–about a million miles away. They dropped their towels and shower stuff, left their place in line, and ran to the entrance. I was curious, but I was also more interested in getting a shower and some precious time alone while everyone disappeared. Later that evening, I asked someone what the commotion was about, and she told me that this is what happens each night when the final walkers come into the camp. She said there are people watching for them all along the final mile of the day’s trail, and sometimes they will even walk the final steps into camp with those at the end of the line.
When the last walker arrives, the flag is raised, cheers go up– hugs, tears, prayers–because everyone is home for the night.
I was so mad I missed this ritual, so I made sure I was there the second night. It was one of the most profoundly paradoxical and sacred moments of my life up to that time. After having been at finish lines watching and cheering on the fastest, fleetest, most fit, most competitive, most determined, and strongest persons cross the line victoriously, this finish line experience was a letdown. These women were the walking wounded. Some of them were not walking at all, but getting dropped off in a van, unable to complete the course on foot. It was a rag-tag group, and at first glance, it was kind of pathetic.
Then something miraculous happened. I looked at their faces–their shining, smiling faces–eyes misty and full and bright, and I saw the courage, determination, hopefulness, and pride of the human, feminine spirit. These were suddenly the most beautiful women I had ever seen, and I was so happy they were home. We all cried and sang and hugged and danced. The bells rang out. The flag was raised amid cheers and whistles. Everyone removed their shoes and held them high above their heads.
We were home. We were together. This was holy ground. I could feel myself relax and rest and be at home because they were here now. We were complete.
That’s when I understood for the first time, “the last shall be first.” The last shall be celebrated because the last are us–and we have not arrived until we all arrive. We are not home until all the participants are home. We are not apart from them no matter how hard we try to be ahead of them. As long as they are behind us, we are separated and scattered along the 20-mile course. Before this moment, I never really understood the verse from the Bible–Matthew 20:16. If the last are first, then someone is still first, and that means someone else is still second, third, last….so, what? This means that there is still a top and a bottom– a hierarchy, a system of rankings.
This moment in time–these women crossing the finish line hours later than everyone else– showed me that “the last are first” means there is time and space for everyone to walk at their own pace, according to their story, personality, gifts, abilities, graces, and companions.
Everyone’s journey is one step at a time. It is both honorable and hard. If anyone is left on the trail forgotten and alone, we are all there, forgotten and alone with her.
Caren is Senior Pastor at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Paris, TN. She is a mother/grandmother/daughter/sister/aunt/friend. She loves people and stories and how they connect us to each other.