It was a sunny and beautiful day. Blue skies. Gentle breeze, plus chants of the birds and insects combined to provide a soothing feeling of an eco-paradise. Rays of the sun cast upon the rocks through the pinewoods created amazing nature silhouettes.
Hiking down Mount Pinos from a peak of about 8,847 feet (2,697 m) overlooking Ventura and Kern Counties of California is the best part of the experience. After muscle stretching drills up to the summit, it can’t get any better cruising down. It’s like riding a horse and feeling the humming sound of the winds. The slope makes the two-mile walk to the pinnacle forgotten too soon.
As I hiked down at an increased pace, I noticed a woman sitting on a massive rock by the woods. It’s dangerous to sit alone and unguarded in the woods. For instance, Wild cats and bears tend to sniff around the area and surprise an unsuspecting victim.
“Hi,” I said and waved at her as I continued my powerwalk down the cliff.
She responded in kind, “Hi!”
“Wait a minute,” I thought, “Is she okay?” A lady in her late sixties, looking tired, up on the mountain may use some help. My instinct may be wrong, but better to try to help than not. I deliberated within me. Many were hiking up and down, minding their business. Shouldn’t I mind my business on this mountain? Should I stop or should I go….
I decided to stop, turn, and slowly walk towards her. “Are you okay?”
Her “yes” didn’t sound convincing. The tone of her voice and other non-verbal cues didn’t sync with her words. They seemed to be saying something else.
Refusing help from a stranger because you don’t know what you will get isn’t a bad idea. It’s safe and smart, I suppose, not to ask help from a stranger. Many have fallen into the wrong hands. I wouldn’t blame her. Moreover, this stranger has a unique accent and is of a different race from hers.
I smiled, proposing I could give her a helping hand if she would need one. She insisted she was okay.
No sooner had I continued my powerwalk down the trails than she shouted in a weakening voice, “maybe I would use some help.”
Holding her by the hand, I helped her up. I gave her my right hand. She held on to it as she supported her weight on mine while using her walking stick to support her left leg. Maybe, she didn’t know how draining and rough it could be to hike up to the highest elevation in Ventura County and west of Tejon Pass. At least she tried. Brave woman.
Though she slowed me down, I thought, well, if it is good for her, it is good for a fellow human being. It is also good for God. I strolled with her down the somewhat rocky part of the mountain.
A little more relaxed, she started a conversation with me, the usual getting-to-know-you stuff. By this time, another Irish looking American lady, who happened to be her co-hiker, joined us. She introduced me to her as a new friend on the mountain.
Her co-hiker asked what I do for a living.
“A priest,” I replied.
“What does that mean?”
“Which belief system?”
“I’m a priest of the Catholic Church. A priest is an ordained minister who…”
“Oh, I see.” She cut in. “I know about the Catholic Church. I hear your Church asks people to go to God through the pastor. I hear they want to obey the pope too, ….”
I wasn’t expecting that. But I wanted to be polite. “You mean confession…. ”
The first lady jumped in, ‘That’s about right.”
“Can you tell us more about it?”
I walked them through Scripture, showing the power of reconciliation which Jesus gave to the leaders of the Church the very first evening after his resurrection on Easter Sunday. I repeated Jesus’ words in John 20:22-23: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive any sins, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
I also paraphrased the story in Mark 16:13-23, where Jesus gave Peter the power and authority to lead his Church on earth.
Sensing they were believers; I asked if they could share how the texts speak to them as believers and whom the texts were addressing. I had wished it to be a light moment conversation.
“I see, it means some people have been given authority by Jesus to pardon or retain sins,” the second lady said, with some air of surprise.
“But why do they tell us we don’t need any head like the pope or any leader fulfilling what Jesus has asked?” the second lady asked.
“I don’t know who the “they” is,” I retorted. “I believe you have the answers yourself, and it would be nice to research further. There is nothing to lose by digging deeper and finding things out for yourself,” I emphasized.
My time was almost up, and I begged to leave them. Little did I know that the discussion with these two ladies had ignited a fire in their hearts. In the end, they wanted to come to Church. They have never been to a Catholic Church.
God meets us in strange ways, even on the hiking trails
Fr. Maurice Emelu