By Greg Scharf

Special to California Catholic Daily

Around Good Friday, thousands of believers go on pilgrimages to El Sanctuario de Chimayó in Chimayó, New Mexico. It is known as the Lourdes of America; there are many testimonials to healings and to other miracles that have occurred there.

One of the first pilgrimages involved a large group of New Mexican veterans who had endured the Bataan Death March. They wanted to express their gratitude to the Niño de Atocha. I was also impressed by the faith of a father, whose son was at war in Vietnam, who carried a large cross from Grants, New Mexico, to the Shrine: a journey of 166 miles.

When my son was deployed to Afghanistan, I thought a pilgrimage of some kind was in order, and since Saint Michael is the patron saint of first responders and members of the military, Mission San Miguel Arcángel here in California made sense. It’s almost 400 miles north of here, so carrying a cross wasn’t going to work, and I made the trip in the comfort of a SUV. It’s a beautiful mission and in the sanctuary I realized that there were no guarantees other than knowing that God and St Michael would be with my son and me no matter the outcome.

But the outcome was good, despite weekly firefights or more, my son came home in one piece as did the eighteen other soldiers that served with him.

The women in the gift shop were very kind, and very willing to hear my son’s story. I noticed one of them had a coffee cup with a picture of the mission painted on it. I wanted one, but she said they were no longer in production. I left my name and number in case they ever came back.

I returned when my son came home safely, and I came back once or twice after that.

Fast forward a couple of years. I had been stubborn and had ignored a burst appendix, and a photo shot of me while in the hospital shows a gray-green color, teetering between this world and the next. Some had come to visit in order to say goodbye, and I didn’t realize how close that was until my appendix was removed six weeks later, along with a substantial tumor of a rare form of cancer.

But there was a wonderful surprise. About when I was at my worst, a package arrived from the mission. Indeed it was my own Holy Grail; the note said they were cleaning out a storeroom when they found it.

A few months later, we visited the mission, and I went to express my gratitude for their generosity. “You must be Greg,” one worker at the mission said. “We felt the need to pray for you when we sent that.”

A near-death experience is a wake up call. For me it evoked feelings of love and gratitude, a new appreciation for beauty, and for the faith of someone who cared enough to pray for a stranger.