Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Walking 15,600km for Christian unity

Sam Clear giving his talk after formal dinner

15,600km on foot, 568 days, 11 near-death encounters: this is the story that Sam Clear shared with the Warrane boys when he visited for the formal dinner on Wednesday 7 March 2018. He may have studied mechanical engineering but these days Clear is a speaker and author. He told the tale of his walk through South America, Central America and North America, across Siberia by train, and on foot again from Moscow to the westernmost point of Spain – why he did it, and the lessons it taught him.

The beginning of Clear’s story

Clear started with his background – he grew up in Tasmania, and his sporting talents had him looking forward to a career in professional football. However when he incurred structural damage in a tractor accident while helping his dad out on the family farm, it was time for a new plan. Clear decided to study Mechanical Engineering at university, and although he got involved with sport, he found himself feeling alone and surrounded by a culture that was very far removed from who he wanted to be.

He yearned to do something big like travelling to Africa, but all he could find at the time was a position as a Catholic youth minister in Baulkham Hills, Sydney. While this (and future youth minister roles in other Australian states) got him more involved in the Catholic Church, it also had him working on Christian mission projects with members of different denominations. But as the different types of Christians kept fighting about their differences rather than working together, nothing ever seemed to get done! So Clear told God in his prayer – “Sorry, I can’t help you with this – it’s too big a problem”. And he felt that he heard God telling him that he could do one thing: and that was to pray for unity.

Growing up, one of Clear’s heroes was St Francis of Assisi – and like this saint, Clear thought it would be cool to leave everything behind and go walking – but for this intention of unity. It was a simple premise really: he’d walk for unity, pray for unity, and stop in every church of any denomination (and more than churches in the end) and invite them to pray for unity. It was difficult to execute however. Clear had to learn nine languages from scratch; he was held at gunpoint three times; he was mugged at knifepoint in Costa Rica; and beaten up a few times. He twice woke up in the middle of the night with a man in his room trying to assault him; he met a range of very dangerous animals including a puma; he walked through temperatures that ranged from boiling to freezing; he faced some full-on injuries and more. But it was the experience of a lifetime and he learnt a lot – so he wanted to share two lessons with the boys that he now takes into everyday life.

Lesson #1: Don’t punch the pig

Clear’s first lesson for the boys related to an animal encounter. “My favourite encounter, believe it or not, was the pig,” he said. “In southern Mexico… it’s tropical, and it rains nearly every day. I went to have my morning tea, found a fallen-down bus stop… so I got in underneath this fallen-down bus stop for a bit of shelter. As I started to eat my morning tea though, that pig came around the corner and sheltered with me… The pig smelt the food in my backpack, and so it proceeded to try and eat through the backpack to get to the food. I tried to push the pig out of the way, but animals in that part of the world…were abused horribly. And as soon as my hand went anywhere near it, it reacted with aggression. It thinks it’s under attack…it starts grunting at me, it takes snaps at my hand, it actually pinned me against the back wall of the bus shelter. I was flailing my hands everywhere, trying to get it away from me.”

He continued: “In the end I figured I only had two options. One was to punch it, and I thought I don’t want to punch the pig. It felt wrong to punch the pig. I thought though, surely there’s a way I can calm this pig down. St Francis of Assisi, c’mon, help me out here. I’m not the pig whisperer but how can I calm this pig down and get my backpack back?” Clear grabbed one of his morning tea biscuits and waved it above the pig’s head, then threw it to the other side of the shelter so that the pig would turn its head away. And as it did, he scratched it behind the ear – without any knowledge of the fact that pigs have a sensitive spot behind their ears!

“So this pig gave an involuntary convulsion and literally collapsed at my feet… I’ll be honest, I felt sorry for it, so I kept scratching behind the ear, the pig continues to convulse, then began to massage the pig while I’m talking to it gently. The pig began to grunt and groan and stretch itself out and then fell asleep, and began doing little snores. I do have video footage of it. And I was able to pick up my backpack, still intact, and walk down the road leaving the pig fast asleep in the bus shelter,” said Clear.

“But the lesson from it, in quite a substantial way, was that we have moments where something happens and our instinctive reaction is ‘punch the pig’. But what I learnt from my journey was that if I simply acted on instinct I got myself into bigger trouble… Had I punched the pig, or had I given the pig a biscuit, I end up with the same end result – I get my backpack back. That’s a good thing that I’m after. But for the pig it’s a very different journey. In one he receives food, in the other he receives a headache… And time and time again I found myself in the position of the pig – I did not know literally, from the exact same introduction, if I was about to receive food or a gun to the head. And it made it so difficult. And this was not a South American problem: it’s the exact same problem we face here in Australia at various levels.”

“So,” Clear told the boys, “my first hope is that with whatever degree and profession you go into, that with the end results that are good and wonderful, that you find a way to get there without punching the pig. The end doesn’t justify the means of how we get there – particularly with relationships and those around us…it’s really hard to train ourselves to not just act on instinct.”

Lesson #2 – Don’t take the bus

As for Clear’s second big lesson, he discovered this one in Wyoming in the United States – the least populated state of the USA, where there are more deer than people. In a very small country town called Medicine Bow, which is higher than Mount Kosciusko, he faced a problem – that of reaching the next town.

“It was the beginning of winter,” said Clear. “Bathed in sunshine it was -22 degrees Celsius. My water supply had frozen solid that day but it was a short day of 18 kilometres, so I was able to get through… But it was very daunting from there, because from Medicine Bow to the next town – a small city named Casper – my map said it was 148 kilometres.  Now 148 kilometres I cannot do in one day, so if I’m going to sleep at normal times, that’s three days worth of walking. 50, 50 and 48 kilometres – that’s two nights in my tent. If it’s -22 in the daytime, what on earth is it getting to when the sun goes down?”

In theory, Clear’s water supply would freeze solid by lunchtime on the first day. He knew that drinking snow was not an option as the amount of energy required by your body to melt the snow into something consumable is greater than what your body can give – meaning he would replace dehydration with hypothermia; and hypothermia kills quicker. Not to mention that his backpack was small for easy travel, but therefore only able to carry a day and a half’s worth of food.

“So I walked into the pub and service station in Medicine Bow, unfolded my map, and was asking the locals, what are my options?” said Clear. “And one after the other the locals are saying ‘uh-uh, there ain’t nothing out there. It’s just wilderness’.” They urged him to do the right thing, protect his mission, and take the bus – something which Clear eventually agreed to do.

“I sat in the corner of the pub and as I ate my dinner, just increasingly felt that nagging of conscience as though God was saying ‘trust me’. One of those things that’s hard to explain, but just that nagging that just wouldn’t relent… I’d been through so much to get to that point and on so many other occasions I had done what was responsible, as opposed to what I felt I should be doing. At that moment I figured: okay God, I’ll do this, but if I die out there, it’s your fault. So I got up very early the next morning – 4am – and started walking at 4:30am, figuring that no one would be up to stop me… I made it all of about 20 metres before I had to stop, take my backpack off, take my towel out and wrap it around my full-face balaclava and goggles, because the balaclava itself wasn’t thick enough to stop myself from being frostbitten…and walked on for three days out in the wilderness on that back road.”

Clear continued: “And pretty much everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. My water supply froze on the first day, my food supply ran out on the second day, I ended up with pneumonia on the first night. I also was so severely dehydrated that my saliva glands shut down by 10am on the second day. But every time something bad happened, a random Christian cowboy rocked up… not knowing I was there, and happened to be carrying exactly what I needed!”

The first cowboy came out of nowhere with a huge bottle of Gatorade in his car, and he also happened to be the most full-on evangelical Christian that Clear had ever met in my life. Not to mention the fact that he keen to pray for unity right there and then, and then offered to carry the invitation to pray for unity to all of the nearby towns that Clear wouldn’t be passing through.

On the second night, while Clear was sitting in his tent and wondering how he’d ever get through the night while so hungry and thirsty, he heard footsteps. It turned out to be another Christian cowboy with arms so full of food that it got him through to his 4pm arrival at Casper the next day. By the time he arrived his toe had split open, and his boot was squelching with blood inside. He could see a hotel as he approached and all he wanted was to get there and check in – but he felt that God was saying:  ‘you didn’t come for hotels but for churches!’ Unable to shift this feeling, he started approaching churches, only to find them empty and closed. Clear told God that he was done, it was time to find a hotel – he’d only try one more church.

And one more church he did try – Our Lady of Fatima. The priest, a Fr Fox, listened to Clear’s story before telling him that this was the most inappropriate time – but that God always put people in his life at the worst times. Fr Fox put Clear up for two nights at a 5-star hotel and the next day, had set up a media conference – as it turns out, this priest also had a personal mission of unity. This coverage led to Clear appearing on the front pages of newspapers, two mainstream TV channels started doing hourly updates, and compassionate mums would find him in their minivans and provide hot meals. A lot of international media ran with his story but it never really reached Australian media. Through this encounter, Clear’s invitation to pray for unity was getting to places that he hadn’t even walked through. Had he taken the bus, he would have ended in the bus depot in Casper, three kilometres past Our Lady of Fatima and also past Fr Fox.

Clear continued: “What I find again and again, and what I still find today 10 years later, is that doing what is responsible is great, but there is another step up – what God is asking of us – and that’s hard. … But I discovered that the most satisfying moments in my life, again and again, are where it’s about going through the hard yards and what God’s calling me to, not what’s just at that responsible level.”

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