True pilgrimage means entering into the whole story of a land—and there are ways for Christian travellers to ensure they get that experience, argues the Rev. Richard LeSueur
If you’re planning a trip to the Holy Land this year—or if you’ve just started taking the idea to Google—you may notice that terminology around travel to Israel-Palestine has changed a bit. The travel industry has recently developed a preference to call Christian travel to Israel a “pilgrimage.” What was commonly marketed in previous years as a “Tour to the Holy Land” is today being promoted as a “Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.”
Has anything changed? At first glance, not really. The itineraries read the same: the frenetic pace, glossy hotels, air-conditioned coaches, sumptuous meals, ample shopping opportunities, and a blur of sites.
One might ask then: What do these tours have to do with the ancient practice of pilgrimage? Is use of the term “pilgrimage” simply a marketing scheme to add sticker value and appeal to religious clients? Has the practice of pilgrimage been hijacked for consumerist ends? Is there a difference between tourism and pilgrimage?
Pilgrimage is not tourism. Pilgrimage is a distinctive approach to travel that brings vivid engagement with a land, its peoples, and its ancient stories at a depth that can be called “soulful.” While all travel experiences contain elements of tourism, pilgrimage is different in its intention, pacing, collective rituals, and the principles that underlie the day-to-day experience. Christian pilgrimage will respect a multi-narrative approach. It aims to present all narratives. It does not present only one story about one people nor favour one narrative.
Christian pilgrims to the land of the Holy One—the land of a Lord who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers”—deserve to be immersed in the totality of a land: its stories, its peoples, its contextual struggles, the hopes and dreams of all. A Christian pilgrim to the biblical lands does not only seek to encounter the stones where Jesus walked but to meet the “living stones” of the contemporary Christian community.
The only person who can truly define your journey as a pilgrimage is you. The good news is that there are ways to ensure that your visit to the Holy Land includes the Good News—that your trip transcends tour buses, hotels, and restaurants and looks to Christ. Consider these seven ways of building true pilgrimage into your trip:
- Sunday Worship: Be sure the travel itinerary you select permits Sunday worship with the local Christian community. In Jerusalem there is the Anglican Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr with Sunday services at 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m.. In Nazareth, only a few steps from the Church of the Annunciation, is Christ Church (Anglican), with Sunday worship at 10 a.m. It is surprisingly meaningful to find oneself worshipping with the local church and to discover how important your presence in worship can be for them. They are a remnant community, living faithfully, often ignored and wonderfully welcoming. Include your brothers and sisters in Christ in your travel experience.
- Bethlehem: Be cautious of itineraries that do not include a visit into Bethlehem. It can be a certain sign of a biased program. To enter Bethlehem means having to encounter the reality of the Wall of Separation that unavoidably invites questions and learning about the contemporary, not-so-holy land. True pilgrimage means entering into the whole story of a land. As much as you will make an important visit to the Holocaust Memorial, be sure to enter Bethlehem. Pray in the oldest church in the world, the Church of the Holy Nativity, with your Christian brothers and sisters.
- Christian Guest Speaker: Contact the Dean of St. George’s Cathedral in advance to arrange a time when your group can visit the Cathedral and hear about the life and ministry of local Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East. Groups are always deeply appreciative of this opportunity to learn about the local Christian church and how it is seeking to live out a ministry of reconciliation and peace-making. This ought to be on every itinerary for Anglican pilgrim groups.
- Christian Guide: Ask the tour company if the guide requested is a Christian. They will know. They can find out. Guides are booked far in advance. There are many superb licensed guides leading tours through Israel. A Christian pilgrim group may believe there is a moral obligation to give work to the Christian guides. They are excellent and all licensed by the Israeli Department of Tourism.
- Visit a Ministry: Enrich your experience with a one-hour visit and tour of the magnificent outreach ministry of the Anglican Church in Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives for children with disabilities called the Princess Basma Centre. Inside the main entrance, on a wall celebrating donors from around the world, you will find a plaque that names “The Anglican Diocese of Ottawa.” Your tour company or your guide can arrange this visit upon your arrival. Expand your experience of the land. Meet the Christian mission of the “living stones” and be moved and inspired by their gracious witness to the Risen Christ.
- Multi-Narrative Balanced Truth Telling: A Jewish-American organization of youth called “JStreet” publishes the following statement: “Educational trips for young American Jews must present a robust, nuanced and honest view of the current realities on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian Territory. In addition to a wide range of Israeli perspectives, they must include Palestinian voices who can speak of the realities of life under occupation.” Be sure you are being respected by being introduced to the whole story of the land.
- Visiting a Country That Doesn’t Exist: There is still hope of a two-state solution in a land of two peoples; of approximately six million Jews and six million Arabs. Respect them all. There is no one people in that land more deserving than another. There is no one people more loved by God. They are Jews, Christians and Muslims. All of them are made in the image of God and loved by God. Tread carefully and respectfully. Expect that whatever you have come to believe about the peoples of this land and the Risen Christ will be transformed and enriched significantly.
In conclusion, be an informed, Christian traveller. Be wary of those who tell you there isn’t time in the itinerary to worship on a Sunday with the local Christian community, or who prevent the group from shopping in local Christian shops, or who present a commentary that cannot easily be described as “multi-narrative.” Christian Pilgrims to the land of the Holy One will benefit from being proactive about the experience they seek.