Several years ago I served as the lead writer for a team of people working on a project titled “International Pilgrimages with Youth.” The program was designed to give young adults, aged 18 - 24 an opportunity to travel in small groups to visit with church partners in distant countries and to report their experiences to their home congregations. I did extensive research on the history of Christian pilgrimage and developed resources to assist travelers in keeping a daily journal and making reports on their experiences. Each participant received a journal with daily devotions, including scriptures in their own language and in the language of the region they were visiting. There were ceremonies of departure and return and guides for the home congregations to engage in prayers while the pilgrims traveled. It was a challenging project, but it never progressed beyond a free prototype tours. After the trial groups completed their pilgrimages the project was deemed to be too expensive for that particular moment in the life of the church and future pilgrimages had to be cancelled for lack of funding.

One of the spin off effects of the project is that I view travel, and indeed daily life, differently than I did before the project.

A Christian pilgrimage is a journey undertaken with a disciplined awareness of those who are left behind and of how a pilgrim can transform the life of the community at home. Those who do not travel have their lives expanded by their thoughts and prayers of the one who is traveling. They experience absence and wonder about the experience of their loved one. The one who travels is transformed by the experience, and upon return provides a means for the entire community to be transformed. Congregations have long known about the power of travel to inspire personal transformation. One of the most frequent comments of youth who go on mission trips is “my life was changed by the experience.” There is value in travel for the sake of personal transformation. But a pilgrimage offers the potential of so much more. More than one life can be transformed. A relationship with those in distant places offers the potential to transform lives in both places. As one observer put it to me after a summer of hosting visiting youth mission trips, “I wonder how many people think that the reservation exists for the purpose of providing rich white kids from back east chances to change their lives.” A Christian Pilgrimage is more than a one time experience. It is an experience that shifts everyone’s perspective and transforms the relationship between groups of people.

We have attempted to treat our sabbatical experiences as Christian Pilgrimages. We have worked hard to provide our congregations with meaningful experiences of departure, spiritual exercises during our travel, and careful reporting and reconnecting upon our return. We have tried to travel people to people, establishing and maintaining long term relationships with those in the places we visit.

In the congregation we now serve, we have attempted to nurture and sustain a long term sister church relationship with a congregation in Costa Rica, with whom we have shared exchanges every year for more than 30 years.

Recently Krista Tippet, host of “On Being” updated and broadcast a previous interview with Paulo Coelho on the topic of pilgrimage. The interview got me to to thinking about pilgrimage in a fresh way. Coelho spoke of “the possibility of doing a pilgrimage every single day - because a pilgrimage implies - in meeting different people, in talking to strangers, in paying attention to the omens - basically being open to life.”

I’m intrigued with the notion of thinking of life as pilgrimage that is available to everyone. Often pilgrimage is a journey undertaken by a privileged person. Not everyone can afford the expenses and endure the rigors of travel. Not everyone can afford to go without pay and walk 500 miles or travel to distant locations. Everyone can wake up in the morning and resolve to experience something new. All it takes is the courage to talk to a stranger, step out of one’s comfort zone and do something one has never done before.

Warming weather in the spring means that I start to walk more than I do in the winter. Often I’m walking around places in our city where I’ve walked before. I journey through the neighborhood around the church. I head down town for a meeting. I walk in the neighborhood of my house. These places are very familiar to me. But I am intrigued at how many conversations I have with people whose names I do not know. Strangers will come up to me on the street and ask for assistance. Their stories are vaguely familiar, yet unique. Sometimes I know something that is helpful for them. Often I don’t have much to offer. I often wonder what I am like to that other person. After all, they showed courage to walk up to a stranger and begin a conversation. I am a total stranger to them. They don’t know if I will respond with hostility or helpfulness. Truth be told, I don’t really know myself, either. I don’t have a predetermined way of responding. Sometimes I shrug my shoulders and say that I don’t know how they can get what they are seeking. Sometimes I reach into my pocket and offer a dollar or two. Sometimes I invite them to step into a shop for a cup of coffee and perhaps a sandwich. Sometimes I am in a hurry and don’t say much at all. Each encounter seems to bring out a different part of my identity. We meet, we speak and we depart without fully knowing one another. Pilgrimage theory, however, maintains that we are both changed in the experience.

Life itself is a pilgrimage. We are continually being reborn and reformed by our experiences. When I look at life this way, I can be as excited about each day as I have been about taking a major trip. I don’t need to go to a distant location to encounter something new. All I need to do is to keep my eyes and ears open to the things that are in the world around me.

Today is the start of a new pilgrimage for me. Perhaps it is a new pilgrimage fo you, too.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!