The practices of an annual, hundred-mile pilgrimage to a shrine of healing dirt in New Mexico offer a remarkable discourse on social compassion as participants ritually share the suffering of people whose pleas for prayer they carry. For seven years I have been known as the middle-aged, Anglo professor from Brooklyn who joins them. My participation does not provide me a privileged view but a modest opportunity to learn through my aging body, urban sensibility, and recalcitrant agnostic spirit. As I negotiate the distance of this long passage, I am shaped by the physicality of the road, the geographic conditions of New Mexico, and the context of Hispanic Roman Catholicism that challenge the comfort of my niche in academe and offer me a model of compassion to sustain social concern. The harsh conditions of my journey teach me about sacrifice and humility, not as pietistic attitudes but as “sensible” responses to a life where I am not protected by the privileges of my race, class, and gender.
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