Sunday, June 27, 2021

Entertaining Angels

Disclaimer: I originally wrote this blog entry nearly 5 years ago, but somehow it was deleted. I tried to retrieve it, and did everything I could to somehow archive it. No dice and I was left with no such luck. Inevitably though, I’ve shared this encounter with different people over the years and every class of students I've taught, and every time I recall the events of that day in perfect clarity, and those who listen are always awestruck. So, I decided to rewrite this entry. Most of what originally was written was saved on a Word Document, but some of the nuances were edited when I transferred it to my blog document before posting. Enjoy the read.

Justin Schaefer 6/28/89 - 11/22/15

Captain’s Log: June 27th 2016

The time was around 6 o’clock in the morning, and the morning dew & fog still lay it’s presence over the mountain landscape that was just outside the tribal hunt I found myself in.  As I sat on a rickety wooden bench, between & across from fellow travelers from around the world, we clutched our instant coffee mugs and savored our bread with jam breakfast the locals served us that morning.  The air – even in the hut – was below freezing.  With my many winter layers & gloves on, I asked the person next to me to pass the butter, and I happened to glance down the long table from me & my heart stopped! 

“Justin?!” I thought…

After an abrupt thank you to the person next to me, I took the butter, & I immediately looked down.  After a few seconds, I looked up and down the table at the same young gentleman.  “What?” I thought skeptically. “No.” I repeated in my mind with uncertainty.  “He looks just…like…Justin.”  In this moment, my heart is beating as I stammer & stumble for my coffee on an uneven table with my bulky gloves half getting in the way of my breakfast. I take a third, fourth & fifth spy like glance at this clone look-alike stranger. 

It’s the summer of 2016 & the previous November my good friend from college – Justin – passed away very suddenly while on a morning run in Detroit.  At the age of 26 years old, & a young man who lived a very healthy, active and giving life, his cause of death remained a torturous mystery to many of us for quite some time.  It wasn’t until the following March, while visiting with Justin’s father –  Mike – that he shared the results of the autopsy; & I had some answers & a bit more closure.  But of course, closure doesn’t cure all grief, & grief is a slow and sometimes redundant process. 

So now months later, in the Andes of Peru, as I struggle not to stare, I bury my face in my coffee before taking another glance. I was in awe. In every way, this stranger had every physical characteristic of Justin. It was uncanny how identical this man looked like my late friend.  If I’m honest, the sight nearly brought me to tears. 

Color Run San Diego - Fall of 2012
In the moment of surreal shock, & reminiscent grief that was bubbling up, I turned away for some distraction & for a moment to gather myself.  My attention went to table conversations with the other travelers in my immediate table space to divert my attention from the end of the table that gave me those eerie goosebumps & floating curiosity. 

After breakfast, we were all ushered to huddle in front of a large map at the front of the hut as our local guides went through the logistics of how the hike to the top of Rainbow Mountain would go. I found myself glancing over to Justin’s doppelganger.  Geeze – I could not get over how this man looked just like my friend; same height; same build; same hair; same facial structure; same eyes & nose. As though Justin was risen from the dead & standing in the flesh right before my eyes. 

Once outside & after passing a herd of alpacas on the hilly & overcast landscape, the guides instructed us to lather the sunblock on, & take a swig of water.  After realizing I forgot my sunscreen at my hostel in Cusco, I noticed this mystery clone (who was just a few steps away from me) had some of what I needed.  After some hesitancy, I approach the man, & asked,

“Excuse me, do you have some sunblock to spare?” 

“Oh, of course!” As he hands me his bottle with a smile that was familiar to someone else I once knew.   We both comment on how cold we were, and how it was simply too early for this temperature. 

“I’m Barbara by the way.”

“Oh, my name is Michael.” 

“Where are you from Michael?”

“The Netherlands.  And yourself?”


“Oh, how nice, I’ve always wanted to go to California.  I hear the weather is great!”

Moments later we began our hike at an elevation of 14,000 feet. 

Talking to this stranger & being in his space had a comforting feeling. Besides his reminiscent appearance, maybe it was his calming & friendly voice.  And aside from the European accent, he had a similar cadence in his speech as Justin did & the manner in which he spoke was calm & kind. Again, in a way Justin spoke.  I cannot fully explain the peace that I felt being near this mysterious Michael from the Netherlands. As we journeyed through an undiscovered land of wild desert landscape, snow capped peaks, herds of alpacas, llamas, donkeys & horses, I took some comfort in walking along side Justin’s mysterious twin.  Come to find out this guy also had many other similarities to Justin outside the clone like similarities: the outdoors, his age, family background, & even his mannerisms were...just…like…Justin’s. 

Some moments later, our guide begins to give us a spoken dissertation on the rainbow-like landscape we were hiking to grab a glimpse of. And in guide-like fashion (& possibly like a geologist) he went into great detail. He talked about how the area has four major geological features: the Andean uplift formed by granite, the hanging glaciers and glacial erosional valleys, the Permian formation with its singular colors of red, ochre, blue, turquoise and the cretaceous. I couldn’t ignore the ‘coincidence’ at this moment. You see, Justin studied geology in his undergrad and graduate studies at Cal Berkeley. He would geek out on rocks & minerals, & go into great speeches in how incredible a rock was, & how it would always amaze him, & how his love for this science affirmed his faith & in God. A gemstone was often a token he gave his friends with an analogy of God behind it. 

I couldn’t help but say to myself: “Justin, this is right up your alley, the science behind how the rocks & minerals formed this colorful landscape painting.  I can absolutely see you and hear you geeking out over the geology of it all.” 

As we are continuing along the green pastures and valleys that are starting to change color – as if to indicate we were getting closer to this Dr. Seuss landscape, I began (in good faith) to speak to Justin in prayer; there were too many signs not to. 

“Justin, it’s almost like you are here with me – in physical form.  This guy is like your twin – I can’t make sense of it otherwise.  Your geological nerd side would totally love this hike Justin; the beauty of the changing landscape, the fresh cold air, the wild animals, the beauty of the locals.”  

After a long three hour trek we finally reached the top of Rainbow Mountain - throbbing thighs & all. As I stood at the peak of this storybook vision I took stock of this 360 view. Snow capped mountains on one side, & dry & colorfully layered mountain peaks on the other. The air was freezing, but my adrenaline & awe kept me from noticing. Like every other pilgrim of a traveler there I couldn’t help but snap every possible picture of this Rainbow Mountain. As I stood there shoulder to shoulder next to Michael staring & gazing, almost wanting to never leave, I said to him…

“You know Michael, I gotta tell you; you look just like a friend of mine.” 

“Oh really? You’ll have to show me a picture of this friend of yours.”

I didn't tell him this friend had recently passed. I decided it was unnecessary and likely too much information to share with a stranger. Instead we exchange phones for our individual Kodak moments. 

For the better part of the descent down the mountain, I hiked alone. I thought about Justin’s life & how much he meant to so many people - least of all me. I thought about the guilt & regret I held on to for months after losing touch with him after he moved to Detroit for a volunteer teacher program. A similar one that brought me to Philadelphia, & one I wrote a letter of recommendation for him. I thought about the conversations he had with me about teaching, & how my experiences were part of the decision that drew him to go from an office job to the classroom. I thought about how I rarely cared to follow up with him about his year & a half of teaching before his dying day came for him. While I know it’s an irrational thought, & I’ve come to peace with it, at the time I felt as though I had abandoned him in the thick of a first year teacher. 

But in this encounter, it was as if God & Justin were telling me that he was okay; that God was taking care of him up there in the great beyond; that I didn’t need to beat myself up; that Justin didn’t blame me for any of the preconceived notions I held against myself. For the first time, I felt peace that day over Justin’s death. 

And at the risk of sounding theological, the symbolism and parallelism of Rainbow Mountain, and the Rainbow after the Great Flood in the book of Genesis was hard to ignore - God’s promise to not destroy life. But a rainbow that suits Justin and his deep interest in geology, a rainbow that speaks of Justin’s life? It was all too coincidental. A modern day Bible story - kind of.

Sneaky picture of 'Michael'
Upon returning to Cusco after sunset that day, I piled out of a crowded 10 person van & stood on the cobblestone alley with Michael for a bit as we chatted one last time. We exchanged Facebook profiles, & I promptly proceeded to sit in a corner cafe & fervently  filled a few pages of my travel journal. 

Hold tight, story isn’t over. After returning to California some weeks later from my solo travels in South America, I met up with a mutual friend for dinner. I told her about this Justin’s look-alike encounter. She promptly asked to see this mystery man’s Facebook page that I was recently friends with. His profile was gone from my page - I couldn’t even look him up anymore. It was as if he didn’t exist. Was it real? Did I really meet this man or was it a figment of my imagination? Or was it something more divine that I could never truly understand? I vote the latter. 

Now months later, his death anniversary came up, & I made the decision to drive to his grave sight in San Diego, & pop in to visit his parents later that day. Upon arriving to Justin’s resting place I take some moments in prayer, & as if a jolt of lightning hit me, I notice something I hadn’t noticed before. It was his middle name that was etched in his headstone - Michael. My heart dropped and I broke out in tears of gratitude for Justin’s life, his friendship, and this gift of a divine encounter I was given.  

Now, I know some skeptics will have their comments on this encounter & somehow say it wasn’t divine. To that I say, anyone is free to believe me, or not. Yet, I know what I saw in this mysterious Michael, and I know what I felt in the core of me that day. Can I prove it? No. But I can't disprove it either. And believing something like this encounter is something of faith. Take it or leave it.

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