06/17/2010 07:45 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Walking With Jesus In Africa

Religion News Service

SALIMA, Malawi (RNS) For the better part of a month now on my most recent African sojourn, I haven't been doing much walking.

Yet I've been thinking a lot about walking as I've passed hour after hour trundling around this little bean of a nation from bureaucratic office to bureaucratic office, collecting official adoption papers, paying countless fees and compiling an impressive collection of official ink stamps (both Malawian and American.)

I've traveled from one end of the country to the other and back again, staring out the window of an SUV as the topography changes dramatically but one thing remains the same: the walkers.

The one constant, no matter where or when I've traveled here, are the thousands -- no, millions -- of people walking, mostly barefoot through the red dusty and rocky soil, in mostly single file along both sides of the road.

Back home in California, I walk quite a bit -- around my neighborhood, down in town, and as often as I can, along the beach and tide pools of the Pacific Ocean. Spending so much time in a vehicle these last weeks has me longing for a good long walk -- to clear the head, feel the earth beneath my feet, move slowly in time with my thinking, pondering, and prayer.

What has struck me most these last weeks, riding in the SUV for hours, are these Malawian pedestrians. They are not on a stroll. They're on a mission -- to get to work, to collect water and carry it back to their village in a 30 gallon plastic tank on their head, to get to the nearest clinic, to get to school, to church, to the mosque, to bring their maize, carrots, homemade charcoal, eggs, tomatoes, and sugar cane to market.

I, too, am on a mission. But I get a ride where I'm trying to go. I've often wished I could get out and walk a mile -- or two or 20 -- in their shoes. On their soles. With their souls.

My son is from this walking place. For the first nine years of his life, his feet were, as Bob Marley so eloquently put it, "his only carriage." He walked everywhere, even though his weak heart would make him sit and rest every few hundred yards. When I think of where he went
and where he couldn't go -- how small his world was then -- I can scarcely get my Westernized, privileged, world-traveled mind around it.

Walking is as natural for most of us as breathing. Walking heralds many of life's pivotal moments. Taking our first steps. Walking down the aisle. Walking behind the casket of a loved one. Walking away from an opportunity, a wrong relationship. Walking down a different path in a strange place, alone but not.

As I've watched the walkers here in an endless, dusty parade of hard work and hard living, I've also thought a lot about Jesus. Apart from the occasional boat trip or donkey ride, Jesus walked everywhere, too. In the dust. In the heat. When he was tired and hungry and bored. Jesus walked. His feet got sore, his toes got dirty, and he kept on going.

I find Christianity's story -- that God came to Earth as a human and dwelt among us -- such an extraordinarily powerful and poetic idea. Somewhere in the Bible it says Jesus walked among us. Barefoot or in sandals, he walked with us.

Jesus, Christianity tells us, knows how it feels to be us, to be human, to be weak and discouraged, to be tempted and outraged, to be tired and hopeless. He knows because he walked with us. And the great comfort of my faith is that he walks with us still.

As I struggle to complete the most important mission of my life, I draw strength from those riding and walking beside me, here in Africa and thousands of miles away.

My load, which is emotional but might as well be a 30-gallon water tank on my head -- is lightened by my constant companion, Jesus, who I can feel walking beside me, in the dust, the dark and confusion, as well as in the dawning light and an end in sight.

(Cathleen Falsani is the author of the recent book, "The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers," and "Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace.")