Jesuit scholastic Dan Dixon shares the story of his pilgrimage to Mexico, which he took as a novice in 2013.

Dan Dixon, SJ: Finding God and Grace on Pilgrimage

November 24, 2015 — Dan Dixon, SJ, is a Jesuit scholastic currently enrolled at Columbia University in New York in a dual degree program for private school leadership and business administration. Here he shares the story of the pilgrimage experiment he took as a Jesuit novice in 2013. Dixon embarked on the monthlong pilgrimage with a one-way bus ticket and $30 to cover his travel expenses.  

The Buildup

What’s going to happen to me? Where will I sleep? Will I be kidnapped? Will people understand me? Will they even care to try?   

This is a small sampling of the thoughts I had in the week leading up to pilgrimage, all the way through my two-day bus trip between Minneapolis and Mexico City. I seriously contemplated getting off the bus in San Antonio, calling an audible on the pilgrimage I had been praying about for a month.   

On the bus ride, I clung to my $30 like Linus to his blanket. I had packed a bag of peanuts and trail mix, which was all I ate those two days.   

I was afraid.    

Dan Dixon, SJ, during his pilgrimage in Mexico.

The bus finally arrived at the Mexico City bus station at 5 a.m. I hadn’t slept for two days and was certainly not ready to speak to someone in Spanish. But I needed to change my money into pesos to take the Metro to my initial destination, a parish across town. The casa de cambio didn’t open until 9 a.m. This pilgrimage was going to be brutal.   

I sat outside the bank next to a homeless guy named Betuel, from a city called Oaxaca. Turns out, he had been in the U.S. with his family for five years, working in South Carolina. He had been deported the day before, with his wife and two-year-old son staying in the U.S. in hopes for a better life.   

Turns out, my wounds weren’t so bad after all.   

We said our goodbyes, and I headed to my initial destination, a community of Jesuits in a poor neighborhood in the south of the D.F. (aka Mexico City).

Getting Accustomed to Community

The next day, I met a family in the Jesuits’ parish who took me in for a few days. I was accepted, without reservation, as a member of the family. I learned that it’s good form to kiss the women you meet on both cheeks. I learned that you never turn down food (it’s an insult). If you’re not hungry, ask for un poquito (a little). I also witnessed openness in the community. Though poor, there is a connectedness among the neighbors. When I went with the family’s grandmother, Josefine, to visit the elderly women of the neighborhood, many of them asked me for a blessing. I tried to explain, “No soy un sacerdote!” (I’m not a priest!)

Dixon with his family in 2014.

But to them, I was a man of God and they wanted me to bless them. I would feel uncomfortable enough doing this in English. In Spanish, what could I say? But this is what I was being asked to do. The role of the priest is huge in Mexico. There is a sense that the priests and religious belong to la gente, the people, the community. The people want them present for everything

This is how I fit in to the community during my month of pilgrimage. So much attention is given to what priests “give up,” and not enough to what they receive. The ability to be present at key moments in people’s lives is special, a gift from God. 

It was a grace to feel that I belonged to the people who asked for my prayers. 

Conquering Fear in Oaxaca

After Mexico City, I took a bus to Oaxaca, where I became an active part of a parish, Concepción Imaculada. I was put to work immediately at a youth retreat, where I gave the first of many talks. I love public speaking, but in a second language it can be really frustrating.  

Dixon receiving a cross after professing First Vows in the Society of Jesus in 2014.   

Oaxaca was possibly my favorite city I visited in pilgrimage. I started having fun. I began speaking the language with greater fluency. I was asked to give a number of talks to various groups and assist with different ministries. The embarrassment I had about what I was saying had gone away. I felt loved and accepted exactly as I was. 

This is the type of relationship I feel I have with God. 

With God, there is no place for fear, anxiety and tension. He has made us to be a certain way and has blessed us with unique stories to share. Oaxaca taught me that rather than scrutinizing my “performance” in life, I should enjoy what God has placed before me. Turns out, I speak a lot better that way. 

Be Like a Child

After Oaxaca, I bussed my way to Guadalajara, where I stayed for a few days at an orphanage called Ciudad de los Niños. Up until this point, I had met and stayed with grandmothers, families and other young people. I realized that I hadn’t really spent time with children. 

In coming to this site, I was nervous about how I would be received. Would my help be needed? How would I relate to the children? These questions were put to rest quickly. After being taken in by the community (again), I walked over to one of the boys’ residences (they were between the ages of 10-12). Soon, I had about 20 boys crowding around me. They wanted to know everything. Where did I come from? Did I have brothers or sisters? What were my thoughts on Lucha (professional wrestling)? The orphans were hugging me, tugging my beard, and asking me “Cómo se dice” (How do you say…) about everything in English. 

God offers us unconditional acceptance. 

After a few days playing fútbol with the boys and spending my days with them, it was time to head back to the States. One of the boys, Eduardo “Lalo,” gave me his Mexican flag. What a token to remember this experience and to encourage me to show this same sort of generosity to those I encounter. 

God’s generosity is spontaneous and excessive. 

Palm Sunday or Prodigal Son?

It wasn’t actually Palm Sunday, but I felt like it when I returned to the United States. I found a bus ticket between Guadalajara and Phoenix, where I taught for two years prior to entering the Jesuits. I prayed about it and decided to visit my old school. Despite going without a shower for a few days and wearing a beard, my students recognized me immediately and embraced me. Although I hadn’t yet arrived in the novitiate, I was home.

God gives us what we need, when we need it. 

But I still had an issue — how was I going to get home? I had to be back in only a couple of days and had no money in my pocket. 

Dixon (second from right) with fellow Jesuits.

The priest, Fr. Tom, suggested that I make pies with him as a fundraising aid. It was incredibly effective. At Sunday Mass, I told my story and sold the pies immediately for enough money to return home. Then, a stranger approached me who happened to work for Southwest Airlines. He promised to hook me up with a flight. 

So much for anxiety. God had taken care of me, as always. 

Many people misunderstand pilgrimage as a reality show, “Survivor” type of challenge. In truth, very little of pilgrimage for me involved “roughing it.” Instead, I was called to cast away my anxieties and to rely upon God rather than created things. God speaks primarily through his people, as I hope my story communicates. 

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