FirstWorks Director to walk 'The Camino' for 50th birthday

5/28/2009


By Sandra Mathias

For most of her life, the Rev. Birgitte French, known as “Pastor Bee,” has been on a journey.
 
She has lived on three continents and has set up housekeeping in 24 different homes ...so far.
 
Born on the sandy shores of Denmark, she grew up as the daughter of a United Methodist minister. Her sojourner life began at age 23 as she ventured out as a young medical missionary serving in Algeria, Kenya and Zaire.
 
To say she has a brave and adventurous spirit would be to seriously underestimate her.
 
During her varied travels she has delivered babies where there were no hospitals, fed and cared for thousands of hungry and indigent refugees, held a leper in her bare hands, learned to make lightening from a rain man and witnessed exorcisms in the jungle.
 
Along the way, she met and married a fellow missionary, Niels French. Together they have two wonderful teenage children, Hanna and Fletcher.
 
While raising a family and traveling the world, she also found time to followed her calling to become an ordained Methodist minister.
 
For now, the French family has settled in Memphis, Tenn. Niels works for Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare and Pastor Bee is the Executive Director for FirstWorks, Inc., a 501C3 downtown mission.
 
Earlier this year, when Pastor Bee realized she was near the “half century” mark, she decided to commemorate her 50th birthday with a new journey....one that would challenge her physically, spiritually and emotionally.
 
She decided to become a “Pilgrim” on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.
 
She and her sister, who is also a Methodist minister and still lives in their homeland of Denmark, plan to walk this historic path together.
 
On May 16, Pastor Bee flew from Memphis to Madrid, Spain to meet her sister, who flew in from Denmark. On May 17, they arrived near the monastery Triacartela and began walking the Camino from Leon’s cathedral.
 
Why walk the Camino at age 50?
 
For over 1200 years, Christians of all ages and denominations have been traveling to Spain to walk the Camino, also known as “The Way of St. James,” to pay homage to the resting place of St. James the Apostle.
St. James was one of the 12 original apostles, a fisherman who left his nets by the Sea of Galilee to follow Jesus after his death and resurrection.
 
After he traveled across the Mediterranean to Spain to preach, his bones were brought back to Spain and laid to rest.
 
Millions of new “pilgrims” come by foot, donkey, bicycle, horseback and some are even carried to pray at St. James’ grave site at the end of the “Camino.”
 
Pastor Bee and her sister, the Rev. Charlotta Thaarp, are walking at least 14 miles per day, for 10 consecutive days, on stony pathways, wooded trails and cobbled streets.
 
Both have been practicing since February by exercising and taking long, extended daily walks while wearing special socks and walking shoes as they balance a weighted backpack on their shoulders.
 
During the months of “Camino Boot Camp,” Pastor Bee stated that she was pleasantly surprised to have lost 40 pounds and drastically change her eating habits.
 
She was also surprised to see that her spiritual and prayer life evolved during the time she was training for the Camino walk.
 
The Milky Way will guide them at night until they finally stop to rest at hostels and bed and breakfast inns.
 
The Camino is a spiritual journey and is traveled by millions as the most famous Christian pilgrimage.
 
Pastor Bee also decided to get a special tattoo for her 50 birthday so she will always remember this milestone......and her “walk” with her sister in Spain.
 
She now sports a faint tattoo on her ankle in the design of a cross and a scallop seashell. The cross declares her Christian faith and the scallop is the sign of a Pilgrim.
 
Signage guiding the way on the Camino features a scallop and Pilgrims are “stamped” with a scallop as they past landmarks along the way.
 
The sisters will end their journey at the Santiago de Compostela’s 10th century Romanesque and Gothic cathedral.
 
Excited to begin her next 50 years of adventures, journeys and traveling experiences, Pastor Bee said, “The Camino will be a spiritual renewal to be away with my cherished sister and be able to communicate with God along this sacred road as I learn to wait and to listen for His answers for my life.” •