They were halfway between Fort Hancock and Tornillo at daybreak today, walking from Brownsville, Texas, to the West Coast on a cross-country pilgrimage -- a journey of peace -- with not much more than walking sticks and back packs.
"Walking is a form of prayer for me and for those who join with me," said Claude AnShin Thomas, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran who became a Zen Buddhist monk. He is leading this particular U.S.-Mexico border pilgrimage that started March 1, 830 miles away in Brownsville.
"There is no particular intention except to gain awareness about the region and issues and to see up close what's happening down here."
Thomas, 59, an international advocate of nonviolence, is the author of "At Hell's Gate -- A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace," and a Zen mendicant priest subsidizing the pilgrimage with nothing but the
generosity of those that he and his companions -- Wiedke KenShin Andersen, 37, Gabriella Mura, 45, Mike DeMaio, 58, and Bill Butler, 62 -- encounter along the way.
The American Zen pilgrimage is expected to arrive Thursday in El Paso. Thomas and his followers will meet with Catholic Bishop Armando X. Ochoa, Mayor John Cook and the City Council on Friday. A lecture is scheduled Saturday at Unitarian Universalist Community in Central El Paso.
So far, Thomas and his companions have spent 28 days walking the backroads of Texas. The walk is scheduled to end June 1 in National City, Calif.
"I'm a religious beggar," Thomas said. "I am committed to bringing an end to war in my lifetime, committed to bring an end to suffering."
Thomas talks in his book about how he returned from Vietnam, disillusioned like many other veterans of that era, and experienced alcohol and drug addiction, post-traumatic stress and homelessness before discovering and embracing the simple life of a Zen Buddhist monk.
"As a result of my service, my life and understanding has evolved to knowing that violence is never, never a solution and that war is not an effective way of conflict resolution ever," Thomas said.
So, Thomas goes into places of suffering, talks with people along the route and does what he can to erase misunderstandings among people.
He and his small group of pilgrims have been stopped and questioned daily either by the U.S. Border Patrol, national guardsmen, state troopers, county deputies and other law enforcement agencies. They described the encounters as mostly polite, sometimes harsh and bureaucratic.
The group recently spent the night in Valentine, Texas, one of their many stops after traveling 15 to 18 miles per day.
"They seemed very sincere," said Viola Calderon, the Valentine Independent School District's technology coordinator. "They're just advocating peace, not trying to push religion or anything."
Thomas tells others that his pilgrimage is more about learning about the region and seeing how the Zaltho Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes peace and nonviolence, can help.
"I have discovered the kindness, generosity, compassion and tenderness of the people who populate the area," he said. "I've also heard consistently about how the current pressure on the border has disrupted a centuries-old economic and social structure, which has led to more suffering on both sides of the border."