Finding Joy in a Place of Need

By James Johnson 6-24-2013
Rev. James Johnson, the Whiskey Priest, in Peru
Rev. James Johnson, the Whiskey Priest, in Peru

Go Here to read the second in this series, Competing for the Greater Good

Peru is a land of extremes, especially for a motorcycle pilgrimage. Our journey from Lima to the orphanage in Moquegua took us through some of the most severe riding conditions imaginable. Storms of Peru, the second segment in the Neale Bayly Rides series, provided a glimpse into the challenges we faced, as Peru would not give up her beauty easily.

Our ride began in the congested, chaotic streets of Lima — a thriving metropolis of 16 million people — where an aggressive riding posture is your only chance for survival. It’s not that the Peruvians are bad drivers; it’s just that traffic laws don’t seem to be a concern for any of them. Riding through the boiling cauldron of cars felt like a massive vehicular free-for-all. Lima provided a baptism by fire for our adventure and, exciting though it was, we were glad to leave the haphazard traffic behind us.  

We rode south toward the beautiful but haunting desert of Ica. The life-smothering heat and blowing sands sweep across the land and stop abruptly at the Pacific Ocean. Riding through the rugged terrain of crushed rock, sugar sand, and loose gravel was even more challenging than it appeared on television. I was glad the production team didn’t show everything. I bit the dust more times than I care to admit.

The country is amazingly beautiful, as are the people. There's a crazy juxtaposition of things you have to see to believe — poverty mixed with joy, beauty and brokenness in the very same face, a fierce gratitude in the meanest of circumstances.

In this week’s show, I re-experienced the power of grace shining through the meanest of circumstances. What struck me were two scenes. The first came as we finally made it through the desert and came upon a shantytown just outside Ica. 

The town comprised hundreds of shacks — makeshift shelters with tin or plastic tarp roofs. These shelters were no more than one small room in which all the functions of family life took place — often, large families. There seemed to be a scarcity of everything. This town was as poor as I had ever seen. 

Here, in the midst of the squalor, in a place where people have prayed and waited for rain for years, I was encountered by something sacred. As we pulled the motorcycles off the dirt road and I took off my helmet, I heard the laughing of little children with dirty hands and faces as they raced across a dusty playground to greet the crazy gringos on their wild riding machines.  

As soon as I stepped off my motorcycle, a little boy ran at me, full-speed, and buried his head in my stomach. He wrapped his arms tightly around my waist, looked dead into my eyes with a widely smiling face, and said “Hola!” I had been embraced by a joy for which I could see no earthly reason.

The second remarkable experience occurred in a roadside church in a town of not more than six or seven small buildings. The time of our trek coincided with Ash Wednesday and I wanted to stop into a place of worship for some refreshment.

The little church was beautiful, but dingy on the inside. There were no more than 10 or 12 pews, more than enough for the town, and a few kneeling stations positioned in front of gold crucifixes flanked by candelabras. There were statues of saints, ornately robed with hands folded in obeisance and pleading faces.   

Apart from the stained glass windows that muted the rays of the afternoon sun, the church was illuminated almost exclusively by prayer candles. Each little flame represented a heart poured out to God, trusting that God would hear. There were a lot of candles burning for such a small town. 

This space felt warm and peaceful to me, like I had come home. It was deeply moving for me to see these little candles continuing to burn in prayer long after the supplicant had gotten up from their knees. The town, so meager in means, was rich in prayer.

Peru proved to be a bearer of many such blessings during our sojourn. For a Whiskey Priest who often feels the darkness more than the light, these were moments of grace. The dingy little church all-aglow in the prayers of the people felt spacious to me.  The angels with dirty faces who mobbed us with affection at the shantytown broke our hearts with an inexplicable joy. And once again, I saw that beauty and joy, like all good graces, show up in the most unexpected places. 

The final leg of Neale Bayly Rides: Peru, aired on Speed Channel on Sunday. It airs again today at 2 p.m. and on Friday at 8:30 p.m. To catch all of the episodes, check out the broadcast schedule here. For more information about the adventure, visit

Rev. James Johnson, affectionately known as the Whiskey Priest, is an ordained Presbyterian Minister, spiritual director, writer, and occasional speaker.  Check out to find out more about his work and follow him on twitter @awhiskeypriest.

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