Why I Am a Pathfinder

Before Pathfinders Project really began to take shape, before I figured out why, precisely, I wanted to engage in service as I traveled, my friend Chava invited me to spend a month with him in Mexico. Of all the memories I have of the trip, my fondest are of the hours-long discussions I had over breakfast and coffee each morning with Chava’s Spanish-speaking father. It was during one of these conversations that my understanding of Pathfinders Project took an evolutionary leap forward.

The topics of my conversations with Chava’s father ranged widely, but we returned more than once to religion, atheism, and humanism. I was proud at the time of how my three years of high school Spanish survived the demands of conveying when and why I first began to question religion, how my agnosticism turned to atheism and, in turn, how that path led me to humanism. At the end of one of our discussions, Chava’s father said to me, “No crees en Dios, pero si eres religioso porque eres bueno.” You don’t believe in God, but you are religious because you are good. At one point in my life, this statement would have angered me. Taken literally, it implies that religion has a monopoly on goodness. But Chava’s father meant exactly the opposite: he was recognizing that goodness may reside outside of religious belief.

I realized then that in dialogue across religious boundaries, the precise meaning of language isn’t the point. Proud as I was of my Spanish, my connection with Chava’s father did not depend on my ability to speak this second language. Our mutual respect, interest, and appreciation had already been communicated nonverbally, allowing each of us to interpret what the other said through our knowledge of the person as a whole. In that moment, what mattered was not my understanding of religiosity; what mattered was Chava’s father’s intent.

And so it should be with most interactions across religious divides. The stakes are too high to rely on words alone. No matter how similar, no two individuals will use or interpret words the same way. This is why academics must define their terms in order to present coherent arguments, why words are often insufficient to share who we are across religious or cultural boundaries.

Very simply, this is why I am a Pathfinder. I want moments of understanding that transcend the limitations of language. I want to connect with others across cultural boundaries. Our service projects provide the foundation for these authentic interactions. Before a single meaningful word is spoken, these projects enable us to communicate far more than we could express verbally anyway. And when the time comes, the mutual recognition achieved through the projects allows our words to convey all the goodwill we intend.