November 24, 2013
I walked off the plane and through two security doors leading to the public area of the airport. Being one of the last to exit the prop plane that flies between Seattle and Yakima, my friend’s spouses and partners were already hugging and kissing them. I’ve seen this many times after folks have returned from a trip, but this time, in the eyes of partners and returnees there was something different, something more. The story of the eyes clearly said the last few weeks had been no adventure.
I first heard that word, adventure, four weeks earlier. I had returned from Alaska and was making phone calls asking folk to consider volunteering for two or three weeks in the Alaskan bush. There they would repair flooded homes. (During the spring break-up, ice on the Koyukuk River broke. House size chunks dammed the river, backed water up into a village of eighty folk. Up and down river, one home after the next were flooded.) I commented that it was late in the season and lying at the edge of the Arctic Circle meant winter wasn’t far off in this community. If repairs were to happen, it meant boarding a small plane out of Fairbanks within a next week. Edges were nudged a bit more when folk learned that if a medical emergency occurred, the best care was advanced first-aid until a flight could be arranged—24 hours wasn’t out of the question. Edges smoothed a little when they learned three faith-based denominations were asked to go into three remote villages and if a team were not pulled together from the denomination assigned to a particular village, then flood work would have to wait until spring of 2014. That is when I first heard, “well at least it’ll be an adventure.” But it was not.
Flying in a small plane over an open country of meandering rivers with thousands of oxbows with your knees tucked up to your chest (at least that is how it felt) is one thing. Remembering tucked behind your seat is a safety pack, handed to you before boarding, that has a sleeping bag because, “in case you go down you need to be able to survive until another plane can find you,” is another. But when the landscape rises from a meandering river plateau to a mountain ridge that feels could be measured in tens rather than thousands of feet, well, the idea of adventure kicks in. If that was all one experienced—journey, risk, danger, and uncertainty, then it would have been an adventure. But it was not.
Volunteering can be adventurous. In fact, after fifteen years of guiding volunteers, I’d say adventurous is not an uncommon way they describe their experiences. But the eyes of those folk, partners and volunteers, on returning to Yakima, spoke of something more than adventure. It is more because, though I had made some good arguments a few weeks prior, the core reason for each of them lay within themselves, not on a timeline. Faith matters more than it is often given credit for. Too often, we relegate deep faith off to an extremist rather than seeing that in our friends or ourselves. Yet it is faith, nurtured for decades, that becomes embodied and leads one to say yes to the bush, maybe even when health isn’t what it was thirty years ago. Embodied faith is the kicker. Embodied faith is why folk need to quit adventurous volunteering. Whether one is volunteering in the bush of Alaska, the backcountry of Honduras, or in the city in the next State, faith says it should not be an adventure.
Pilgrimage is an old term most of us consigned to yesterday. For some it is misguided fear, they pilgrimage to Mecca, but for many of us, we have simply forgotten our folk use to pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is the richer edge of adventure. It has the uncertainty, risk-taking, danger, and unknown of adventure, yet one more very important feature: spirituality-holiness-mysticism. Pilgrimage is a holistic journey.
Worktrips and Missiontrips away from home need to end and pilgrimage reclaimed. The mistake of worktrips and missiontrips are they suck the volunteer into a sense of fixing something that is broken. However, building a house in Mexico (really, pick your Latin American country), feeding the homeless in San Francisco (or pick your major city), or painting, roofing, or building a handicap ramp on the Yakama reservation (or pick your reserve) doesn’t fix a thing. Sure, it provides a bit of charity (And charity is sorely needed for without it people die…really, they do!), but it does nothing to promote justice and change root cause. Now pilgrimage doesn’t provide justice up front either, but the pilgrim knows that.
Pilgrimage is all about the pilgrim (Yep, pilgrim is a hard term for us living on reservations. We jump to images of folk in black clothes, pushing indigenous off land, and widespread death, and we’d a whole lot rather not be associated with that. However, being a pilgrim is something very different than the massive hurt caused by colonization.) Pilgrimage is an intentional journey in which the individual pays close attention to the landscape. The pilgrim soon learns the moment they step into a landscape other than their own, that landscape is forever changed as are they. A pilgrimage engages the sacred of the land and that sacredness becomes something of themselves. In other words the landscapes story, that of creation, of life, of wonder, of wind, becomes their story. I may do well at this point to say this is not about appropriation. The pilgrim doesn’t begin wearing a Kanga or a Ribbon Shirt, grow their hair long or braid it. Rather, the being of the landscape enters their own. The pilgrim changes from this weaving of life.
Can one have an unintentional pilgrimage? Well, probably not. Those pairs of eyes in the terminal spoke of something more akin to Hebrew story of Jacob and the landscape of Peniel. Jacob was of journeys and adventures. Though he experienced the holy in a ladder dream at Beer-sheba, he was a man of practicality not mystery. Having a conversation with the landscape was not on Jacob’s mind when he entered the land of Peniel. Rather, because of fear and apprehension knowing Esau is just over the next rise, Jacob was incapable of conversing with the landscape of Peniel. But the landscape is clear, you don’t get to stand on this ground and not pay attention to the sacred that resides here, it will not be denied, and Jacob is compelled to pay attention to the mystical. A wrestling match does not make a pilgrimage, but it does change a person.
When the journey is intentional though, the stuff of pilgrimage, there is a richness that cannot be denied. A story of pilgrimage is that of the Hebrew story of Moses and his journey across the wilderness. Moses has something Jacob did not, Jethro, a father-in-law for a priest. When Moses shows up at Jethro’s tent flap to marry Zipporah, his life is a mess. Knowing only the urban, Moses finds himself incapable of hearing this rural landscape he finds himself in. It takes time before he can understand his young life was as “an alien residing in a foreign land.” It is many more years, many conversations with Jethro, and many more conversations with this rural landscape, before Moses searches for something missing in his life and sets off on a pilgrimage, with a flock, across the wilderness. Due to the intentionality of the journey, Moses is open to the mystical residing in the landscape. Because of this, he doesn’t have a dream, he doesn’t wrestle, he doesn’t experience a miracle, he doesn’t experience metaphor, but instead lives the intimate of the Holy on the mountainside of Horeb. The journey of Moses has all the aspects of adventure, and one more, a desire for the sacred, the hallowed, the divine.
Those pairs of eyes in an airport terminal spoke of the mystical. Some had journeyed and some had stayed home with their loved ones in their heart (think Zipporah). In both cases, something changed for the numinous journey they had engaged in. Yet, those eyes also raises the question, what might it have meant to have pilgrimaged rather than volunteered? What might it mean for others who leave home on a pilgrimage rather than a worktrip or missiontrip? It just might mean life would not be lived under the false construct of having fixed something, the mystical that is unique and wonderful to the landscape might be known, and life and landscape together would become richer.