. . . through every land, by every tongue . . .

Pilgrimage and Pakistan

For over two decades, I have been referring to my travels, especially the overseas ventures as pilgrimages. For me, the concept of pilgrimage opens up a broader range of possibilities and orients me to the culture and people I will encounter. A number of labels are used for travel – none of them inherently wrong, but it might be worth clarifying what I mean. Consider a spectrum of descriptive labels beginning on one side with vacation – tour – business trip – mission trip – immersion, and on the opposite extreme – pilgrimage.

For example, if I am on a tour, anything that is not on the tour agenda is a deviation and perhaps less welcome. If I am on a mission trip, I am automatically in a helping or teaching role and perhaps not in a learning mode – the idea that I need to be “in charge” rather than the student. My institution and others use the term “immersion.” While this is perhaps moving in the right direction, my Baptist roots indicate that I must really “get wet” in the new culture, and not just “sprinkled” if I am on an immersion experience. (This is not a negative comment on other modes of baptism, just a metaphor!) An immersion for me indicates that I need time to get into the rhythm of the local culture and develop some degree of independence in using local transport and relating to others rather than always being hosted at every point.

These terms are not mutually exclusive. What is perhaps different about a pilgrimage is that it has connotations of moving toward or encountering the holy – traveling to a holy place. Those who study church history learn of the fourth-century woman Egeria who left us a detailed journal of her pilgrimage to the Holy Land. For Muslims, the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five pillars of this faith and must be performed during the believer’s lifetime if physically and financially feasible. St. Columba’s epic sixth-century journey from Ireland to Scotland is at the heart of the ethos of the modern Iona Community, so much so that the Community commissioned a biography of the saint in honor of the 1500th anniversary of his death. See Ian Bradley’s book: http://www.amazon.com/Columba-Pilgrim-Penitent-Ian-Bradley/dp/0947988815.

For the 21st-century traveller, the idea of a pilgrimage may not be as common, especially in the Anglo context in the United States. We tend to take vacations to get away, while pilgrimages require moving toward something. Vacations are associated with relaxation and pilgrimages can be quite taxing in many ways. Vacations are often associated with having special comforts, while pilgrimages may require a much more ascetic lifestyle.

Of the many qualities of a pilgrimage, the most important for me is the view of time. One is not quite sure when a pilgrimage begins or ends. Vacations tend to have specific starting and ending times. A pilgrimage for me often begins with a yearning – a sense that there is a place that offers me the opportunity to broaden my perspective, encounter the “other” and the “Other,” find out more about myself, and attempt to break through the wide range of culturally reinforced stereotypes that come from being human, especially for one who lives in the upper five percent of the world’s population educationally, socio-economically, and in terms of mobility. Unlike a vacation where you might judge its “success” by the number of places you visited, the relaxation you experienced, the degree of disengagement from “normal” life, the quality of food you tasted, and the smoothness and punctuality of itinerary, a pilgrimage is perhaps on the other side of the spectrum with a focus on relationships and learning. In short, a pilgrimage begins from the moment of a yearning and perhaps lasts throughout one’s whole life. Anything that happens on a pilgrimage – ANYTHING – is part of the pilgrimage – planned or unplanned, pleasant or unpleasant, timely or timeless, boring or adventurous, solitary or in community.

Lest you feel like I am a bit over the top on this, I can assure you that I enjoy good meals, creature comforts, sightseeing, and on-time travel. Truth be known, finding a Starbucks in Tainan or Manila can be a relief after having only local cuisine for a few weeks. While in Madurai in southern part of India where I was eating with the students in the seminary, I had to slip over to a hotel buffet about every third day because I wasn’t getting enough protein. In addition to the nutritional value of those visits, I admit to enjoying the air conditioning, quietness, silverware (I ate with my fingers with the students), and range of food options at the buffet, even if for an hour.

An example of what I think it means to be a pilgrim took place as I prepared for what turned out to be a pilgrimage to Pakistan in October 2015. In January 2015, I met three Pakistani Christians who, for reasons not entirely clear to me, invited me to teach in a worship and music conference in Pakistan, the Tellihim School of Church Music and Worship (http://www.calvin.edu/cicw/microsites/worshipsymposiumorg/files/2010/sarwar.pdf). Eric Sarwar, the organizer of the conference, is a Pakistani pastor who completed his theological education at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is currently in a Ph.D. program at Fuller Seminary in California. I had met Eric on previous occasions and was captured by his passion and vision for church music and worship in Pakistan. Participating with him in the invitation were Rev. Samuel George, the son of the founding pastor of the Philadelphia Pentecostal Churches of Pakistan (See Revelation 1:11l 3:7 and https://www.facebook.com/Philadelphia-Pentecostal-Church-of-Pakistan-160659153949229/), and Nigel Bobby, a talented musical artist in Pakistan who has a gift not only for performing, but also profound aspirations to develop the musical talents of young Pakistani Christians (See www.facebook.com/nigel.bobby.1).

My initial response to invitations of this nature is genuine intrigue – I have an adventuresome spirit – and a great deal of skepticism. Having not been to this part of the world, I had to admit to the lure of exoticism. Exoticism will not sustain one, however, on such a venture. Even though I was not sure if it would work out, the yearning gnawed at me a bit. The encouragement of long-time friend and fellow hymnologist Emily Brink and the support of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (http://worship.calvin.edu/) seemed to assuage the practical concerns I had. Further conversations with Eric Sarwar convinced me that I was indeed going! At this point, I started to move from adventure to pilgrimage.

Family and close friends, all of whom know of my peripatetic lifestyle, did not share my enthusiasm, however. I can’t blame them since the media does not present Pakistan in a very positive light. I had studied for about three months in India in 2008 and knew a bit about the general context. I had never been in a Muslim dominant country before – but indeed, that was the point. How could I claim to be well-versed in global Christianity and have never been to the Middle East?!

I had heard missionary friends speak of the 10/40 corridor (or window), a slice of the world where expressing and living Christianity presents the most challenges (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/10/40_Window). While I had traveled to some of these places, Pakistan was in the heart of this corridor. What was it like to share the experience of Christians whose faith practice was not just questioned, but whose faith commitments actually placed a believer in danger of being ostracized from friends and family, placed even in physical danger, or worse?

Getting some background. One of the first things I did was to arrange lunch with an experienced traveler to this region Paul Neeley, a former missionary, and a founding member of the International Council of Ethnodoxologists (I.C.E.), a network for exploring Christian worship worldwide with cultural sensitivity (See http://www.worldofworship.org/). Paul had led worship at the previous Tellihim conference some years before. Not only did he fill me in on the situation in Pakistan, but also give me an idea of what I might do that would be effective in an environment so vastly different than my own. A little secret: while I have accepted invitations such as this over the years regularly, I have an abiding fear of not being able to offer anything of true value for the context other than being in solidarity. While solidarity is not insignificant, it is rather audacious, even arrogant, to think that I, totally educated in the West and never having even been in a Pakistani community even in the USA, would have anything of educational value to offer. Among the many valuable insights that Paul shared was the relevance of the imprecatory psalms (the ones that we often feel are a bit paranoid – oaths against enemies, etc.) and the role of martyrs in faith. Paul helped me deal with a stereotype about this particular biblical literature and its seeming irrelevance to me. For Pakistani Christians, these psalms and martyrdom are existential. There exists a tradition of psalm singing in Pakistan that began in the late 19th century! See Punjabi Psalms: http://www.internationalbulletin.org/issues/2014-01/2014-01-036-sadiq.html. After lunch with Paul, I was moving to full pilgrimage mode, even though I wouldn’t leave for another couple of months.

A potential setback – Risk Management. Pilgrimages invariably seem to run into snags, even before one physically commences the journey. In my institution, Southern Methodist University, faculty members have access to excellent institutional support including international travel insurance. While it is required for our overseas travel – fortunately I have not had to use it – it is reassuring to know that should I have medical emergencies, there are resources available. As usual, I applied for travel insurance to Pakistan. I thought my computer was going to dance off the desk. Red flags went up! While I didn’t hear any warning sirens, it was apparent that I was applying for insurance to a “Level 4” region where safety and security was of paramount importance. The only thing worse was trying to travel to a handful of Level 5 locations including North Korea, Afghanistan, or Somalia, to name some. The Risk Management Department kicked into high gear.

(A parenthetical self-revelatory note: While intellectually, I understand the need for Risk Management in a university in the 21st century, I have a stereotype that the purpose of this department was to make it harder for me to do the stuff I want to do. Being a rather independent mid-Westerner, I do not like to have my hand held, be overly accountable to others, and generally feel that my motives and methods are being questioned when I feel they are above reproach, something self-evident to any discerning person– end parenthetical comment.)

I had to fill out extended versions of the application process that required detailed disclosure of my complete itinerary, my hosts, nearby hospitals, and contact information. Admittedly, I had some minor thoughts about the advisability of this venture, but I pushed on. Actually, it was helpful for my hosts to provide me with more detail. Having been in a number of cultural contexts where one’s schedule can become quite “fluid”, I found that more information was helpful. I reluctantly was reassessing my stereotype of Risk Management.

Then, before the insurance could be approved, I was required to meet with the officer who handles strategies for dealing with the most difficult types of threats that university campuses encounter. He was not only a really nice guy, but had served in such places as Afghanistan and Pakistan as security liaison for State Department officials. He had a map of Pakistan (I had not really checked out the geography at all, just knowing it was northwest of India) that detailed my itinerary in light of the assessment of threats to Western travelers to the country – the RED area to the west bordering Afghanistan (don’t even think about going there!) and the ORANGE area to the east (we wish you wouldn’t go there, but you seem hell-bent on doing it). He covered the routes where I would be most vulnerable and noted quietly at the end that the insurance policy does include resources should you become unavoidably detained (I think you can figure this out.). What I saw as a necessary evil or an onerous requirement turned out to engage me even more in the pilgrimage. I had not yet left Texas and I was already committed in a profound way to the pilgrimage.

Then there was the sermon topic! About two weeks before I left, Eric Sarwar informed me that I would be giving a sermon to 300-400 people at the beginning of the worship conference in Hyderabad entitled “The Authority of the Last Judgment.” Of all the things that I had encountered – concerns of family and friends, giving imprecatory psalms and martyrs a closer look, Risk Management – this perhaps gave me the greatest cause for alarm. I don’t consider myself a great preacher, and  here I was given a topic that took me back to the apocalyptic Sunday evening sermons of my youth. What could I possibly say to such a group on such a topic, especially people who are living the apocalypse?

The point of this narrative is this: I was not taking a tour of Pakistan (my hosts would not let me out of their sight, let alone go sight-seeing on my own). This was not another workshop weekend where I was the keynote for a conference or guest worship leader for a congregation. This was not a youth mission trip. Neither was I doing the advance preparation of a missionary who would learn the culture and study the local language. I was setting out on a journey for a holy place. Anything that happened from the first inkling of the venture, even before boarding a plane, was part of this sacred journey. What I have outlined here are just some of the key points along the way that shifted my agenda from Middle East exoticism to the possibilities holy encounter. I’ll have to come back later to reflect on how the sense of sacred pilgrimage deepened once I actually arrived in Pakistan.

In the meantime, I am getting ready for an intensive course on the theology of hymns from January 25-29 (30 hours in five days!) with my dear friend and mentor I-to Loh at Tainan Theological College and Seminary, Tainan, Taiwan.

Pax (Ping-an in Taiwanese),


Pic above: A photo requested by the women of the choir following a revival at a Philadelphia Pentecostal Church on the outskirts of Karachi where I preached.

6 thoughts on “. . . through every land, by every tongue . . .

  1. Dear Michael,

    I love your distinction & description of pilgrimage, & have learned that, given the opportunities of pilgrimage, vacation & even tour is pretty insipid. Some of your specifics remind me of the challenges I encountered on my trip to Turkey last year, a guest of the Southwest Dialogue Institute, no less! A thoroughly fascinating & holy trip, I assure you, deepened by the group of 5: 2 Christian ministers (a UCC pastor & me, an Episcopal priest), a Jewish mediator, & his Methodist wife along with our Muslim guide who is a graduate political science student at Texas State. What an amazing look at our common roots as 3 Abrahamic faiths, & from meditating at Mother Mary’s house & well outside of Ephesus to the hot air balloon ride over Cappadocia at sunrise & spending Pentecost there & in Istambul! Thank Godde she mad some of us adventuresome enough to move on forward. I’m loving your blog!

    Holy travels, Martha Frances+

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Michael, this was fascinating and enlightening reading! I hope this pilgrimage is everything you have prepared for – and then some. Can’t wait for the next posting. Virgia


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s