I recently returned from Guatemala, where I traveled with a team primarily from my church, Mulberry Street UMC, to drill a water well and teach health and hygiene through Living Water International. While we traveled with a specific purpose and work to do, the trip wasn’t just about accomplishing a task. Instead, it was about coming alongside a community, working together, and sharing relationships. It was more than a mission trip for me; it was also a pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place. A pilgrim differs from a tourist because while a tourist goes to see a place, a pilgrim travels to be in a place. A good analogy is in the ways we can read scripture. We may read it for information, as words on a page that tell us who, what, when, where and how. Scripture or other sacred reading approached in this fashion “arms” us with knowledge, which may or may not be used to help us grow in faith. Scripture read using the ancient practice of Lectio Divina is read for formation. We don’t act on the text. Instead the Holy Spirit uses the text to change us, break down our preconceived notions and to make us different as a result of encountering the text.
If a mission trip were all about productivity, it would not be a pilgrimage. Such a trip would provide ammunition to those who argue that it would be more efficient simply to send the resources to the place of need and not to invest ourselves in the process.
For a mission trip to be pilgrimage, we make a journey to a sacred place. In my experience, the sacred place is both within and outside me. Being part of the team, being in the village of Monte Cristo in Masagua, Guatemala, I realized by week’s end that I had made an inward journey, experiencing love and community as part of both groups. I sensed my belovedness acutely in this past week. I belonged, part of the body of Christ both on the team and in the community.
But it was not only the inward journey I experienced as pilgrimage in Guatemala. As we ate lunch prepared by the village, as we visited homes and shared work, disappointment, smiles, laughter, fun and prayer, I knew I was in a sacred place, a place where a week of shared life united us of different cultures and languages. Is not this a glimpse into the Kingdom of Heaven?
Pilgrimage is about transformation. Returning from Guatemala, I am experiencing an unfolding transformation, a new way of seeing and being. While I went to be part of an external mission, I now know that an internal mission occurred simultaneously with the outward work of the week.
In that sense, pilgrimage should be constantly occurring in the lives of us who follow Christ. The journey is ongoing, always wooing and pulling us toward the One Who loves us. May we follow the tug toward Christ wherever we are.