Jeff Chu, journalist and author of Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, recently spent a week on group pilgrimage to Rome and the Holy Land, sponsored by the Museum of the Bible. In the following series, Chu takes us along on his journey of searching for truth and faith through the history and people he meets along the way.
What if the hardest thing in my spiritual life is to accept the abundant life that Jesus promises? What if the biggest challenge, for some of us who struggle with the sins of self-loathing and shame, is to receive love and to feel joy? Could—should— penitence look different? Might it mean wallowing less and embracing more?
I pretend to be a hermit. I’m shy and always have been. I’m introverted, too, which isn’t the same thing; being with others, especially in large groups, simply saps my energy.
But in my heart, I want to be the pilgrim. One obstacle: Despite the Bible’s repeated admonitions not to be afraid, I am. Yes, I fear disappointing God. But — true confession — my greater fear on this trip, and a sign, no doubt, of my mixed-up priorities, was that I might somehow be deemed unworthy, unwanted, by my fellow pilgrims.
It’s easier to erase someone’s name and negate someone’s identity when you choose to see them as alien and non-human. According to our guide at Yad Vashem, the Germans were so set on “othering” that they created a new word for the Jews: untermensch, literally “sub-human.”
This pilgrimage has been so powerful because of the many moments when we’ve done the opposite: We’ve been invited to step into someone else’s corner of the world, to try to see things from their perspectives, to accumulate concrete evidence for building empathy.
I weaved my way past, trying to find the right angle. All I wanted was to get a good look at the image of Christ Pantocrator — that is, Almighty — that crowns the inside of the dome at the center of the church. But there were too many walls and too many obstructions. No matter where I stood, every view was partly blocked. No matter what I did, I could never quite see all of Jesus.
Since I was born Baptist, I think I was taught in utero to be skeptical of all this Roman Catholic stuff. Of Mary. Of popes and princes. Of these incense-tainted, saintward prayers. Of the overreliance on the heritage that traces back to St. Peter (though of course we would never have called him St. Peter). At one point, our guide said, “Upon this rock, I build my church blah blah blah.” She meant no disrespect. Yet it was one of the funniest, most unwittingly perfect things she has said, pithily capturing our sometimes-cavalier attitude toward this church and, for some of us, institutional religion more broadly.
A pilgrimage must go places we neither know nor completely understand. It’s an expression of faith — real or imagined, a mountain or maybe just a mustard seed. It acknowledges that we want and need more. More what? Perhaps courage. Maybe trust. Certainly a sense that we shouldn’t fear our doubts.
Here is what I packed with me for my pilgrimage, aside from too many clothes and shoes: Fear about spending the next week with a large group of strangers, some of which is my shyness and introversion and some of which is trepidation about being in a space where I’m the only non-white person and the only gay person (a diversity twofer!). Anger at what’s happening in the U.S. — which my passport, but not always the rhetoric, tells me is my country. Worry about the journey ahead. Longstanding doubts about God and faith and this thing we call church and whether any of it makes sense.