One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years. In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal. In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a different way. The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me. You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.
A pilgrimage is a trip that is taken with the intention of deepening the traveler’s spiritual life and connection with the Holy. Often, such a journey is associated with a particular site: Muslims travel to Mecca, Jews to Jerusalem, and so on. Within Christianity, there are pilgrimages that are taken to specific places in the hopes of attaining a certain end: there are those who visit Lourdes in search of healing, perhaps.
When we began to talk about bringing a group of young people from Pittsburgh Presbytery to visit partners in Malawi, we knew that we wanted to do more than arrange a tour or plan a project. And while many youth trips involve engaging the young people in some particular task or act of service, the nature of this experience is much more in the realm of that of a pilgrimage: that is, we have invited these travelers to leave behind that which is familiar and enter into a place that is new and different with the expectation of seeing God at work there. Pope Benedict XVI once wrote, “To go on a pilgrimage is not simply to visit a place to admire its treasures of nature, art, or history. To go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where he has revealed himself, where his grace has shone with particular splendor and produced rich fruits of conversion and holiness among those who believe.”
In fact, we could argue that a pilgrimage is an exploration of a deeper truth that we as Christians hold: we arrange ourselves into congregations or “parishes”. That word is derived from the Greek paroikos, which translates as “sojourner”. It’s used in the book of Acts where the Apostle Stephen describes people of faith as “aliens who are living in a land that is not their own.” In a real sense, each Christian is a pilgrim making her or his best attempts to find meaning and purpose in a world that is not always hospitable to those who value faith, hope, and love.
In my experience, God’s self has been revealed in quiet conversations and raucous worship services in many African communities. I have sensed that there are ways of glimpsing life, living gratefully, and trusting in God and neighbor that are more readily experienced when we can step away from what we perceive to be as “normal” and look at life with fresh eyes.
To that end, our group of fourteen pilgrims from Pittsburgh has arrived safely in “The Warm Heart of Africa”. Our pilgrimage began with a drive from Pittsburgh to Washington DC and continued with flights from there to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and then Lilongwe, Malawi, and finally Blantyre. We’ve waited in some really long lines, eaten some new foods, and managed to misplace 11 of our 14 suitcases along the way (don’t worry, mom, we’ve been assured that the good people of Ethiopian Airlines know EXACTLY where they are and we should receive them in a matter of hours). And we have begun to realize that our worlds are not as big or full or wide as we thought they were… they’ve begun to expand already. And that’s a good thing. In fact, that’s why we’re here!