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Portrait in Faith Honorees Share Emotional Story of Friendship, Spiritual Growth

In 2014, Patrick Gray and Justin Skeesuck hiked the Camino de Santiago, the famous 500-mile trail in Spain that Christian pilgrims once followed to reach a shrine to the apostle St. James the Great. Today, thousands take the same trek annually, but these lifelong friends were different: Skeesuck made the journey in a wheelchair, with Gray pushing.
The two came to EHS for several days this week as the School’s Portrait in Faith honorees. During their stay on campus, they met with students and faculty in small groups and over meals to talk about that journey and how it both tested and deepened their friendship and their faith. They also discussed their book and documentary about the trek, “I’ll Push You.”

Skeesuck said they went on the trip against the advice of friends and family who thought it was foolhardy. “You will have moments in your life,” he told a gathering of student leaders of the Vestry and Service Council, “where you just know you have to do something that you probably shouldn’t. It’s your heart calling, and the Holy Spirit working within you.”

Born just a few hours apart in Ontario, Ore., Gray and Skeesuck were childhood friends who remained close through college, each serving as best man at the other’s wedding. As a teen, Skeesuck began to suffer the effects of a rare neuromuscular disease that gradually robbed him of his ability to walk and eventually the use of his hands.

Gray said he grew particularly bitter when Skeesuck, a graphic designer, lost function in his hands. “I prayed for healing, I prayed for intervention, and I prayed for a miracle. I prayed for everything that would make his situation better,” Gray said at a schoolwide assembly. “And nothing happened. And I said, ‘God, where are you in this?’ ”

Skeesuck, too, had dark moments but retained the optimism that Gray says was his trademark. “I knew that my life would be difficult moving forward,” Skeesuck said. “But I just knew that God had something different, something better. I just didn’t know what it was.”

Their 34-day trip took them over three mountain ranges, across rivers, and through a desert, Gray pulling and pushing Skeesuck in a specialized aluminum wheelchair. The first day alone was a 17-mile climb into the Pyrenees, often at a 30% grade. Throughout the journey, lots of people stopped to help and encourage them. “It was a powerful lesson for me,” Gray said. “Every day we each have the opportunity to help people with what we do or what we say. It’s simple; even just a few words of encouragement can change someone’s perspective.”

Since their return, the two have founded Push, Inc., an organization dedicated to helping individuals and businesses achieve more through teamwork and relationships. They’ve also designed a school curriculum called the Push Project.

At Episcopal, Skeesuck and Gray met with the biblical theology class, students studying nonfiction writing, and the monitors in addition to the Vestry, the Service Council, and various faculty members. You can watch their talk to the student body on LocalLive. More photos from their time on campus are available on Flickr.

Episcopal’s Portrait in Faith program was established in 1994 by Reginald E. Rutledge, Jr. ’51, in honor of the Rev. Fleming Rutledge and his family members who have attended EHS. It introduces to EHS students, faculty, and friends the life and works of Christian leaders who have demonstrated, in the crucible of a moment in history, a strength of faith.
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