As a hiker in the Pacific Northwest, preparing a day pack was a series of what if questions. What is if I get hungry? What if I get thirsty? What if I get lost or injured? What if I get cold or it gets dark? What if I have to spend an extra night?
And so the careful preparations began for placing supplies in my fluorescent orange day pack…not so much out of fear but out of experience. You learn to prepare for these eventualities because you have encountered them.
Now in this desert landscape, the fears are different and new questions arise. A host of new venomous creatures lurk in these desert places where javalina and coyote leave tracks on the trail, and wild cats keep company with wild turkeys.
But there is another kind of encounter happening in this desert as well. Amidst the cactus, the Palo Verde and the desert dwellers, underneath sweltering skies, encounters of the human kind are happening.
A local pastor here goes to the desert to refill water stations for migrants, and encounters a young boy of five crossing the road in front of him. With only the clothes on his back and a small pack, this child has already completed a 3,000 mile journey with his family to escape the violence in his homeland.
At the border, his family now faces the daily violence of rape, murder, and kidnapping. So great is their fear for their son, so deep is their love, that they send him to the other side of the wall into the desert with a prayer and a phone number of a relative in the U.S. and they pray he will encounter someone in the desert who will rescue him.
He has a name. His name is Esteban.
And a man and his wife hike down a well known trail in my favorite nearby canyon. Hearing agonizing cries from the canyon below the trail, they encounter a migrant who has fallen into a creek and is near death from hypothermia. He is nearly incoherent when they find him.
They take off their warm clothing, and she cradles his head while her husband hikes down to get help for him. She prays her body warmth will keep him alive and that her words spoken in a foreign tongue bring some small measure of comfort.
He has a name. It is Javier.
Estevan. Javier. They are the named. But they are only two in a sea of the unnamed lost, the frightened, and the traumatized fellow citizens of our world who are wandering the desert seeking hope and comfort. They are seeking our humanity, and they are challenging our faith.
Yes, the preparations for hiking in the desert are different here. But so are the questions. What might I bring for someone who is hungry? How much water could I carry for someone who is thirsty? What kind of basic medical supplies might be needed for someone who is injured?
I pray for desert encounters now, and I prepare for them because I know Jesus will be there. I know that will I encounter Him in the thirsty, the hungry, the lost, and the hurting. I know that in the face of the stranger lying at the bottom of a canyon wall, the child wandering in the desert, the hope starved walking these desert paths, an encounter with the Divine is waiting.
And I don’t want to miss it.