Seven years ago, on a cold day in December 2009, I entered Elizabeth Detention Center in Elizabeth, N.J. — a minimum-security prison on a pilgrimage organized by the Interfaith Center of New York and Human Rights First. This one-day journey ushered me into the story of immigrants in the New York and New Jersey area, and changed my life.
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.
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.
These moments of wonder, beauty, and human connection — the simplicity of walking one foot in front of the other each day, open to conversation and observation of the time and space around you — are the elements of pilgrimage for which I am most grateful. As cliche as it sounds some 500 kilometers later, I really do feel like my pilgrimage is just beginning.
I believe pilgrimage, like God, is all around us and within us. And whether we are on this path for the first time or the 199th, there is still something here for us. Maybe not a revelation, but a noticing, a paying attention, a shifting our gaze from ourselves to the sky or the children’s laughter at the park.
If we approached this day as pilgrimage, a wandering toward creation, toward God, toward each other, toward the Earth and sky and stars, how might we see the world?
I was a reluctant artist, self-doubting leader and a broken soul.
I was in search of healing.
After a series of traumatic experiences that culminated with my hospitalization in Zambia, I went on a sabbatical in search of courage, tenacity, and renewal to continue in my vocation. It was early 2014, and we were entering into the year commemorating 20 years since the genocide in Rwanda. During this time, my mentors were leading a pilgrimage to Uganda and Rwanda to journey through places of immense pain and tremendous hope as a means to engage in the pain and hope in one’s active life. Because of my closely related work in Africa, I didn’t want to go — I knew I would have to intentionally delve into the hellish reality of a violent massacre I knew very little of. Simultaneously, I knew that by stepping into the pain, I would find the hope I was so desperately searching for. And so, together with eight other pilgrims, I went. We journeyed alongside of survivors and perpetrators of genocide as an attempt to identify in the incomprehensible pain that oppresses us all. It was through this experience that healing came in a profound way.
Having just gotten home from guiding another The Global Immersion Project Learning Community deep into the lives of the unheralded heroes in the Holy Land to learn from their often untold stories, I am processing emotions, thoughts, and reflections that will soon bud into a renewed set of practices at home and abroad. I have now been to Israel/Palestine quite a few times, and it would be easy to think the experience becomes mechanical or normal or whatever. Well, for me, that simply hasn’t been the case. We encourage our participants to enter the experience in the posture of a learner rather than a hero. I try to do the same, and in doing so, am continually convicted, challenged, and inspired by our remarkable friends and peacemakers embedded within this conflict.
Here are 7 learnings that have risen to the surface since landing back on home soil:
The annual pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the hajj, presents a gantlet of health challenges. This year’s pilgrimage, which falls Oct. 13-18, is no different.
Of particular concern is the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, which was first reported in Saudi Arabia last year. At least 120 cases have been reported in the country, including 49 deaths, according to the World Health Organization and Saudi officials.
Ancient stones, steep stairs, and sparkling fresh air greeted me upon arrival in Assisi, Italy, a month ago. Lush olive groves, leaves iridescent in the sun, offset the city stones. “What sort of place is this, that shaped St. Francis 800 years ago?” I asked myself. Eager to deepen my understanding of the saint, I had returned to Assisi to walk in the footsteps of St. Francis.
Profligate playboy, drama king, dejected knight, young Francis lived life large. He grew up in turbulent times, with civic unrest in Assisi and war with nearby Perugia surrounding him. Returning from a year as a prisoner of war in Perugia, sick and weak, Francis drifted. When he sold his cloth merchant father’s wares to repair a church, his father chained him in punishment. Francis stripped in public, denouncing his father. Unlikely material for a saint.
Yet God shaped Francis over time, and Francis yielded. A simple saint, Francis wanted one thing. Nothing but God, he proclaimed, shedding all else. He chose a life of simplicity, serving the poor, and calling the church to reform.
A record-breaking three million Roman Catholics crammed Copacabana Beach Saturday night to hear Pope Francis encourage young people to build a better world.
The pope might have been talking about Fabio Mateus.
The 38-year-old married father of twin boys, made an extraordinary effort to see the pope. Saturday night he and millions of others slept on the beach following the vigil and watched the pink hue of dawn breaking on the Atlantic horizon.
JERUSALEM — Every year, thousands of Americans travel abroad for less-expensive fertility treatments, hip replacements and other medical procedures. Now, an Israel-based tourism company is offering a package that combines medical care with a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
IsraMedica plans to unveil the initiative Thursday (Feb. 16) at the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Nashville, Tenn.
Eli Knoller, the company's vice president of operations, said IsraMedica already brings about 6,000 nonmedical tourists to Israel every year, the majority of them Christian pilgrims.
R.E.M. has ceased to be. The band announced its break up late Wednesday. And fortysomethings worldwide mourn the official end of our collective youth.
Ten days after 9/11, Rais Bhuiyan, an immigrant from Bangladesh, was working at a gas station in Dallas, Texas when a man walked in with a gun. Thinking the store was being robbed, Bhuiyan opened the cash register