Learning to Trust: Julio Minsal-Ruiz
By France Griggs Sloat
Julio Minsal-Ruiz stood before a waterfall and marveled at his incredible fortune.
The waterfall was a consolation, a gift in the middle of a journey into the unknown. Ruiz and two other Jesuit novices were stumbling their way through a forest in the western Dominican Republic, taking the advice of local villages that it was a shortcut to a nearby town. The waterfall offered them a shower, a drink and a chance to regroup, but they were not quite sure of the path beyond.
“That’s what pilgrimage is,” he says. “An experience of bare, almost nakedness of humanity without technology or big-city commercialism. All of that is left behind and all of a sudden all you have before you is a waterfall, trees, a mango in your hand and a path before you.”
The companions discussed going back to the main dirt road. Though long, it was guaranteed to get them to Río Limpio and the end of their 30-day pilgrimage. But no, they decided, they would trust the villagers. So they followed the path away from the waterfall, up and down hills, catching glimpses of Río Limpio in the distance.
After awhile, however, they didn’t see the village anymore, just mountains. They began to worry. It was late, they were in thick woods, and giant thunderheads were looming. Suddenly the mountains boomed. Lightning struck. Thunder cracked. The rain turned the path into a slippery slurry. At a point of confusion, fear and near panic, the young Jesuits began emptying their packs to lighten their loads. Finally, the path just stopped. They were stranded alone at the top of a mountain in the middle of a rain-drenched forest and had no idea where to go.
Thirty days earlier, their journey had begun with a simple admonition from their novice director to put everything they had in the hands of God and surrender themselves to the experience they were about to face. They were driven from the novitiate in Santiago and dropped off in the town of Dajabon on the Haitian border. From there they fanned out in groups of three along dirt and gravel roads to various collections of villages. Each novice then peeled off to stay a week in a different village.
They carried no money or cell phones, just a few clothes, a water bottle, a prayer book and a letter of introduction from the novitiate, which proved unnecessary as the people were long familiar with the Jesuit practice of pilgrimage and welcomed the wanderers. Ruiz found just walking into a town could set off an argument over whose house he stayed in, where he ate dinner and how he spent his days.
“Many times the poorest people in the poorest towns were often the people who were the most generous,” Ruiz says. “They would move mountains to make things appear, like putting food on the table.”
Ruiz approached each community with an offer to work. “Our experience was to work alongside them and experience the work of the rural farmer,” he says. But for Ruiz, who grew up in Miami and graduated in 2009 with psychology and philosophy degrees, milking cows and plowing fields involved steep learning curves. “It was very humbling.”
He stayed in homes of simple construction—cement block with zinc metal roofs. Cooking took place outdoors around an open fire pit under a roof of cooling palm branches. The women cooked rice and beans in a big pot with a single spoon. Sometimes they had meat. Always they had mangos, which, Ruiz learned, are never in short supply in the Dominican. He always carried a couple whenever he traveled between villages, wearing his wide-brimmed hat an older Jesuit gave him to keep the sun at bay. “You could never go hungry, because mangos were everywhere. Even traveling, there was always a mango tree,” he says.
But standing at the top of the mountain, lost, Ruiz’s mind whirled with thoughts of hopelessness, even death, and the very real possibility that they would never be found. “When the path ended, we really kind of lost everything. We had no hope of anyone finding us. It was a very critical life or death situation.”
They had to do something. Hearing a river below, they decided to make their way down the mountain, follow the river downstream and hope it would lead somewhere. After about an hour, they came to a little shack with a well-tended garden. The farmer was helpful, pointing the way to Río Limpio—past oak trees and across fences, fields and more rivers in the distance.
Three hours later, at 8:00 p.m., they arrived—12 hours after they had set out that morning. They were greeted with warm food, dry beds and the company of their Jesuit colleagues. Ruiz realized that even though he had despaired, he’d been determined to complete the pilgrimage and had found hope in the process.
“We’d almost completed the objective of the pilgrimage which is to put everything we had in the hands of God,” Ruiz says. “Even the path we first thought we had was taken from us. The clothes were lost, the food was gone, but somehow God was there and leading us. All these things we thought were ours, but actually they’re things He has given to us. Everything we have is a gift, and that’s the main objective.”