Church leader learns life lessons along historic pilgrimage path

SOJOURNERS—The Harbet family members—from left, Ben, Eliza, Mike and Anna—take a breather along the Camino Frances, a 485- mile trekking path through France and Spain. Courtesy photo

SOJOURNERS—The Harbet family members—from left, Ben, Eliza, Mike and Anna—take a breather along the Camino Frances, a 485- mile trekking path through France and Spain. Courtesy photo

The Rev. Mike Harbert was tired and sore. His right leg was swollen and his body felt like Jell-O after he’d walked more than 200 miles through the mountainsides of France and Spain.

The interim senior pastor at Moorpark Presbyterian Church was at the point halfway of his monthlong journey along the Camino de Santiago, a nearly 500-mile religious pilgrimage dating back to the Middle Ages.

“I trained for it. I’m active, but you still can’t prepare for the pounding of your feet, the bone bruises, the tendonitis,” Harbert said in his office at Moorpark Presbyterian Church in late June. “It’s like life—you experience things along the way you can’t anticipate and you have to roll with it.”

Also known as the Pilgrimage of Compostela or the Way of Saint James, the journey consists of a network of paths that lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and the tomb of the apostle St. James in northwestern Spain.

Historically, the Camino trek was a religious endeavor conducted by Christians as a way to atone for their sins; however, today the path is followed by thousands of people each year who are seeking a spiritual retreat or looking for their next hiking adventure.

For Harbert, the excursion was a way for him to disengage from the busyness of life and connect with God on a deeper level.

Having walked part of Camino with his wife two years earlier, the pastor decided the pilgrimage was a perfect way to usher in a new decade of his life as he turned 60 years old.

“(The pilgrimage) was very much a part of my spiritual journey,” he said. “I love the thought of being on this for a month and seeing what happens.”

After weeks of training, Harbert flew to Paris on May 8 and on May 11 began walking the Camino Frances, a 485-mile path that begins on the French side of Pyrenees mountains and finishes in Santiago, Spain.

Harbert was accompanied by his three children—Eliza, 25; Anna, 30; and Ben, 32—who volunteered to join their father on part of his journey.

“I was really grateful my three kids wanted to come. I walked about half of it with my younger daughter,” Harbert said.

Anna and Ben walked with him for about two weeks.

He said the time alone with his children led to some difficult but important conversations about their relationships.

“We were talking through all sorts of issues, but it’s not rushed because you’ve got hours and days,” he said. “With all three of my kids, the level of honesty and transparency is so much more real. That was a tremendous gift.”

When he began the second half of his journey alone on the old Roman Road, Harbert entered a time of reflection where he learned to let go of his competitive nature and be fully present in his life and with God.

“It’s this amazing time to get in touch with what’s been going on in my life,” he said. “A lot of it is about awareness.”

As he continued his journey to Santiago, Harbert encountered people from all walks of life who were inspired to walk the Camino for a significant reason.

“Most people felt the need to do this because they needed some insight about their lives, about healing, about direction, about a relationship,” the pastor said. “What hit me was that everyone, no matter where we’re from, deal with the same hopes, the same fears, the same struggles.”

After talking to fellow pilgrims and walking for 29 days, he arrived in Santiago on June 29. He attended the daily Pilgrim’s Mass in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela before boarding a bus to the Finisterre coast, also called the End of the World.

From there, Harbert walked to Muxia, a small fishing village with a historic church.

“For some reason I felt like I finished my Camino at that place,” he said. “When I got there and sat on this hill overlooking the ocean, the town and the church, I knew that was my end point of my experience.”