by Christina Clark
I have never been on a pilgrimage. At least, not intentionally. Looking back, many of life’s journeys are pilgrimages of one sort or another. Going to college 1,600 miles from home became, in its way, a pilgrimage. Adopting a child from foster care nine years ago was definitely the beginning of a pilgrimage, not that we recognized it as such at the time. For someone who never really liked being around teenagers – even when I was a teenager – becoming a youth minister was certainly the beginning of a pilgrimage.
But it’s unfair to bandy this lovely word pilgrimage about without a clear understanding of what it means. Full disclosure; I only learned to spell it correctly (one ‘m’, not two) quite recently.
When I did agree to volunteer as a youth group co-leader and was told that part of the Journey to Adulthood (J2A) curriculum included a pilgrimage, I thought ‘Yay, travel!’
So now, four years later, with planning for said travel way behind schedule, I’ve been asked repeatedly and often by people I expected to have more answers than I, “What is a pilgrimage?”
The J2A materials are extremely well-written, but I know that to make this Pilgrimage meaningful for my charges, I must first make meaning for myself.
So I did what any self-respecting theologian would do; I hit the internet.
The World English Dictionary unhelpfully defines a pilgrimage as:
- a journey to a shrine or other sacred place
- a journey or long search for exalted or sentimental reasons
The Catholic online Encyclopedia is no better: Pilgrimages may be defined as journeys made to some place with the purpose of venerating it, or in order to ask there for supernatural aid, or to discharge some religious obligation.
Bad grammar aside, the words supernatural, discharge, and obligation are not helping me out here.
“Pilgrimage Magazine” (who knew?) lists its noble mission as: Story * Spirit * Witness * Place
Now we’re getting somewhere.
If I’m going to take ten teenagers on a trip, charge the parish (through fundraising) and their families a large chunk of change to do it, and call it a pilgrimage, I’d better decide what that’s going to mean to us.
Story – Community
For these young people, church is all about community. They refer to us without irony as their village. They come to church to be together with one another and with the adults who have helped to raise them. They know that their thoughts, ideas, opinions, and doubts are welcome, even wanted, here.
Yet they’re beginning to drift away, the way youth who are 2-3 years shy of leaving the nest are wont to do. They’re booked solid by school, sports, dance, theater, band, friends, and all the other trappings of high school in a way they just weren’t as middle schoolers. They feel it, and so do we. They miss what was, without being able to define it clearly.
So first and foremost, this pilgrimage needs to be about solidifying the life-long bonds of community that are there, but have been stretched. To accomplish that, they need to strive together, laugh together, sweat together, risk failure together, and succeed together.
And that sort of an experience happens more naturally away from the safe predictability and myriad distractions of home.
Read how Spirit, Witness, and Place will define the pilgrimage being planned here.
Christina Clark serves as the Family Minister and Youth Leader at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Denver, CO. She has previously written for Adoptive Families Magazine and Mothering.com and is the author of the novel “Little Gods on Earth”.