Last week we were treated to hearing Phil share his reflections of traveling acorss the country and Steve talk about his journeys around the world. I love travel! Most of you know that I’m leading my next pilgrimage to China in May. I call it a pilgrimage because it isn’t a service trip and it isn’t a vacation. It’s an opportunity to grow spiritually and emotionally. It is a cultural immersion. Experiencing different cultures is a great way to learn about both others and yourself. I plan to add more locations to the menu and start having more and more of these trips because I believe cultural immersion is the best way to help people see the lens through which they see the world. I just love being in places where the people are so different from me. Honduras, Hong Kong, Home. OK, maybe I don’t always love it, but it is always fascinating!
Today I’d like to take you to 5 different parts of the world – places where I got a peak at the lens through which I see the world. That first peak came when I was 17 years old. I love to travel! So my graduation present to myself was leaving on a Pan Am charter and staying a month in Scotland, England, Wales and France. I let each day unfold without knowing how I would spend each night.
Now you might call it a vacation, it really was my first experience as a pilgrim. The difference is that I did more than fly in, check into a hotel, and see the sites. I actually lived and moved with the people of the country. I relied on strangers in a strange land every day to guide and direct me, to introduce me to their ways and their customs.
I let each day unfold without knowing how I would spend each night. And as a result I met all kinds of people and stayed in a variety of hostels, YMCAs and homes of people I met on the train. A few of my experiences were frightening and challenged my exuberant love for all of humankind, but mostly it was fun, exciting and life-changing.
Traveling alone gave me much time to contemplate and to reflect on my experiences. The whole trip was an experience of discovery – learning something about my world, my fellow human beings, and most important about myself.
When I arrived in London I found a ticket office. One of my great loves is theatre and I had hoped to get a ticket to a familiar show, but I didn’t recognize any of the shows. Oh well. I figured theatre in London has to be pretty good, so I decided to gamble on seeing a brand new show that had just opened. I bought a ticket to the matinee the following day and then rode a double decker bus to the London Zoo.
While I was there I met Yuen and Lemon. They were business men visiting from Hong Kong – and frankly they seemed pretty confused and lost. I helped them out and we began to journey together. Their relief in having me around was palpable so when they asked me to accompany them the next day, it didn’t come as a big surprise. But I hesitated. I did have a show to see. On the other hand, I hadn’t even heard of this show – and they really could use a hand. So I agreed to meet them the next day at the London Museum. While theater goers were finding their seats, we were taking pictures with a sarcophagus, eating lunch and experiencing this new culture together.
And what about that play? Three months after I returned home it opened on Broadway. Cats became the longest running musical in Broadway history – and I missed it. You gotta know I regretted that! But Yuen became a lifetime friend. In fact, he was here in Grand Haven visiting Leif and I just a few years ago.
People have been making pilgrimages since ancient times. They have taken long journeys to sacred places for a variety of reasons. Some go seeking divine intervention during times of need. Some go to perform penance. Others seek physical healing by visiting holy waters and sacred springs. Still others travel in a quest for guidance and discernment. And in the process, they start to see the lens through which they see the world.
We all have such a lens. Through it we see a world that makes sense to us, that matches our expectations of reality. Our lens is made up of our values and our basic assumptions. It includes our ideas about personhood, family, interpersonal relationships, sexuality, race, religion, economy, education, and on and one. And they become more powerful when they remain unnamed. When we are able to start seeing the lens itself, we can start to put our experiences and the experiences of others into their own unique context. We develop empathy and understanding. We move beyond tolerance to a kind of admiration and deep respect.
In 2001, I got a long and painful look at my lens. I was in Korea building homes with Habitat for Humanity. And I was in charge of snacks for my house. But I didn’t know the culture, the language, or the unspoken social rules in this country. So it took me several snack trips to finally figure things out. By Thursday afternoon, I saw where the line of wheelbarrows formed and I took my place in line. This time two trucks came, so when the line went to the first truck, I used American ingenuity and went to the second truck first where I was second in line. But when my fellow snack people saw that the ice cream was in my truck they yelled at the leader of the line to move over. That was fine with me, until suddenly I was being yelled at and being motioned at angrily to get to the back of the line.
My first reaction was to feel angry because I felt I had the right to be where I was. But the other part was embarrassed for getting out of line and for being that ugly American. I hung my head and walked to the back of the line. It was such an important wake up call for me. I have always had a passion for addressing issues of social injustice and a desire to be an advocate for those who have no voice. And here I was all caught up in the ways of the world. This experience reminded me of what so many others experience every day of their life. When I assume a right to status and power, a place at the front of the line, then I fail to consider those on the margins of society, the voiceless, the hungry, the imprisoned, the ill.
I saw another chip in my lens when I was Tibet. When our local guide picked us up at the airport in Lhasa he began an outpouring of information about the area, its history, its customs and its religion. I was captivated and deeply concerned. How would I ever remember all that I was being told? This wasn’t fair! In the US you can never go to a single tourism destination without having a printed tract to take home with you. And here I was being told things I really wanted to remember – but how? It was then that I came to truly appreciate Oral Tradition and to lament the fact that I have not been trained to remember information this way.
To do so requires not only a certain kind of educational formation, but also a kind of commitment that I can only label as “holy.” The kind of commitment that leads a nomad in the countryside of Tibet to travel maybe a year, maybe as along as 5 or 6 years in order to pray and make offerings of yak butter and money at the temples in Lasa. And as they walk many doing prostrations or carrying a prayer wheel.
Now I do have to mention that much of this religious behavior is done in the midst of a very superstitious approach to life, particularly among the nomadic people. By gaining the favor of the Gods and the Buddhas one hopes to gain good luck, wealth, and a long life. The belief in reincarnation leads to a kind of holy threat of what awaits those who do not live according to approved teachings and beliefs. We in the west are so much wiser for having experienced the scientific revolution. We have discovered that neither God nor the universe works in such neat and tidy ways. We know that our prayers are intended to move us into the action we seek.
So why is it that we so often feel so much less commitment to doing that work? I mean, if we don’t believe that God is going to intervene to bring about peace and healing, if we don’t believe God is going to intervene to bring social justice and restore human rights and human dignity, if we don’t believe God is going to intervene to set things right – then shouldn’t we be working harder than ever to accomplish those things?
In 2004, I took a pilgrimage to Mexico and El Frontera. We met at two home churches: cinderblock walls – open structures that are cold at night and bake in the summer. And it occurred to me that I had often prayed, “Thank you for my home, for all I have, for blessing me so richly.” And finally, in that setting, I came to understand. I stopped believing that the material things that I possess are blessings at all.
Because if that were so, then there are too many people that a God who gives out blessings had turned their back on and had simply chosen not to bless – and what kind of God would that be? What I had taken to be blessings, what I had thanked God for as blessings, were nothing of the sort. If anything, they were stumbling blocks that distracted me from the plight of people around the world, barriers that artificially separated me from others, obstacles that keep me from embracing my interdependence with everyone else – an interdependence that the people I met in Mexico recognized and longed to celebrate.
When we walked into a colonia something delightfully strange happened. As we walked down the streets, the people, men, women and children, streamed out of their houses and into their yards to greet us. It was like a parade in reverse. What an incredible welcome to receive! I had worried that our arrival might make the people living there feel as if they were on display to entertain and amuse us. But I learned that we were helping them feel connected to the world.
These people lived in abject poverty. At night the rats would come up through the ground and bite the children’s feet. It was horrific to see the ways in which they struggled just to survive from day to day. And there cheerful dispositions and hopeful outlook seemed so incongruous to their surroundings. So much so that once more my worldview shifted. Once more I saw the cultural constraints I lived within that had created a lens full of all kinds of assumptions that simply weren’t true. I could better than ever before see the lens through which I view the world. And here’s the problem with that. Once you see the lens, you can’t unsee it.
The worst part of this journey was the vacation that followed it. In less than a week after returning home my family and I were on a Caribbean cruise ship meeting people who talked about their summer home in Greece and the custom jewelry they had commissioned. And in every port there was the awareness of the poverty that lurked just out of site of the tourists, hidden and therefore unreal. Ignored and so nonexistent. I loved the time with my kids, but I simply could not enjoy the luxury I was surrounded in. Not knowing what I now knew.
For my kids, nothing was out of order. This entire trip was pure bliss. All of the food they could eat. A collection of swimming pools to choose from. A whole suite of videogames. And excursions to swim with sea turtles and raft down a lazy river. They were tourists on this trip, soaking up a vacation during a time that both of those boys tell me is their favorite memory of childhood.
Then two years ago I was able to take my son Alex along with me on a trip to Honduras and to introduce him to what it means to be a pilgrim on a journey. Alex loved this trip, loved the culture, the work, the land, the food, the cigars and the fact that he was legally old enough to drink beer. In fact, Alex enjoyed the beer so much that I started talking to him about the negative consequences of drinking beer. One night after a hard day’s work I asked him how many calories he thought beer had and he said in all seriousness “zero” explaining to me that beer is just empty calories.
Our job was to make our way to remote houses where we would find a blue water filter with its parts, and bags of gravel and sand. We would assemble the filter and test it to be sure it would provide safe drinking water 5 days later. Meanwhile, our local guide was instructing the home’s occupants on how to use the filter and educating them on the results they could expect.
This was the service part of the trip. Americans really likes to go on service trips. We LIKE to roll up our sleeves and get dirty for a cause. It fits with what we believe the world needs from us. It matches the view through our lens. Maybe it’s because we live such comparatively comfortable lives ourselves that we have this innate desire to experience by choice what so many others around the world experience for survival We celebrate sacrificing our creature comforts in order to offer good honest labor in the most difficult of situations in the most hostile of natural environments as we become part of the story of human survival.
But honestly … it would have taken the guide less time to assemble the filters than it took us – and someone had already been there delivering all the materials. So how much did they really need us to be there at all?
As it turns out, we were absolutely essential to this trip – and not because of our labor. Really these people didn’t need our labor at all. We were essential because we are the ones who come to experience a different reality, to adjust our vision as we once more notice the lens through which we see the world. And in doing that, we become the story tellers. We become the voice of people with whom we share this planet and who all too often have no voice of their own. Whenever we enter unknown territory, we have the rare opportunity to see our own construction of reality in a way that the barriers come down and we realize that we are no different from the people with whom we are interacting. All that is different are the situations and conditions surrounding our lives.
We develop a deeper level of compassion and empathy. We return with the responsibility of telling the story so that others can engage in whatever way they are able – making a donation, sponsoring a student, signing up for a pilgrimage themselves. In this way our contribution is invaluable. We are the people who make other people care.
One last note about cultural immersion. We were supposed to spend one day cleaning and preparing a hospital that required new water pipes. The well had been dug. But the pipes were rusted and corroded and there was not a single working toilet in the facility and the few working sinks were dingy and woefully inadequate.
The medical units in the hospital are open rooms with 30 patients lining the walls in all stages of illness and of death. In the maternity ward 3 or 4 or 5 women may be delivering a few feet away from each other while the other 20 watch on in some stage of their own labor. Mothers sit in a room lined with cribs as they hold the hands of their infants struggling to survive typhoid or tuberculosis. In the men’s unit, a man in liver failure stared at us with jaundiced eyes, and while he saw nothing you could feel his blind gaze piercing you to your core. Families sat in the courtyard praying. It is important that they be there because it is their responsibility to bring the only food their relatives will receive. It is a sad and painful sight to be hit square in your awareness with such suffering and despair.
In fact, it was ultimately the hospital visit that would finally overwhelm many of the students on our trip. They decided they couldn’t take any more and found their way to the bus to wait this visit out. My son Alex turned to me with a sickened expression and said, “I didn’t need to see that.” To which I replied, “Alex, that’s exactly what you needed to see.”
We must never romanticize the life of the poor. The mystery is that happiness survives in the midst of lack, not in the idea that lack creates happiness. True, we would probably all be better off with fewer possessions and less fear about protecting and preserving those possessions. But a few hours in a power failure is usually enough to convince us that we would really rather not live without light or heat or running, safe, drinkable water.
We all return from cultural immersion experiences touched in different ways, moved by different experiences. But every one of us who is willing to open our eyes to new realities is changed. We see the lens of our own cultural upbringing and that allows us to recognize that it is time to break old patterns and redefine relationships. Too often we Westerners have tried to “help” a people by telling them that what they need and then giving it to them, knowing all along that what they need most is to be like “us.” They don’t need to be like us. It’s time to ask to engage in a different dialogue. Let’s start by asking what is needed of us. Then there is an even more important question for us to ask. We need to approach our brothers and sisters from other cultures and say with all humility, like Yuen once approached me: I’m on a journey in this life – will you walk with me – will you help me find my way?