Pilgrimage is Almost as Old as Christianity Itself
“For the next three days, we will be on a pilgrimage together.”
These are the words my co-facilitator and I greet the groups which join us for The Sankofa Journey,1 an interactive experience to various sites of significance in the Civil Rights Movement, facilitated through the Evangelical Covenant Church, designed to assist disciples of Christ on their move toward a righteous response to the social ills related to racism. A couple of times each year, twenty to thirty women and men meet us in Atlanta for a discipleship experience which includes cross-racial conversations, learning experiences, and prayer. These culturally and racially diverse pilgrims come from around the country to explore how their discipleship to Jesus can be shaped by the courageous witness of the faithful saints who, in previous generations, laid their bodies on the line pursuing God’s shalom.
Pilgrimage is almost as old as Christianity itself. As the faith spread beyond its Palestinian origins and as stories of the early martyrs traveled the roads of Africa, Europe, and Asia, Christians began embarking on journeys to the sites of these exemplary mothers and fathers of the faith. Having arrived at the sites of ultimate sacrifice, pilgrims would often celebrate Holy Communion before beginning the journey home. In The Triumph of Christianity, Rodney Stark writes that a “major reason for going to the Holy Land was the belief that a pilgrimage would absolve even the most terrible of sins. Thus, many pilgrims came all the way from Scandinavia – some even from Iceland.”2 Stark cites Steven Runciman who observed that “an unending stream of travelers poured eastward, sometimes travelling in parties numbering thousands, men and women of every age and every class, ready…to spend a year or more on the [journey].”3 Pilgrimage is as old as Christianity itself. As the faith spread beyond its Palestinian origins and as stories of the early martyrs traveled the roads of Africa, Europe, and Asia, Christians embarked on journeys to these holy sites. Click To Tweet
What first prompted my curiosity about whether pilgrimage was a practice in need of reclaiming was a series of conversations during the summer and fall of 2020. These were the intense days of the pandemic lockdown and a national reckoning about systemic racism. My book about discipleship and racial justice had just been published and my new conversation partners, typically white Christians in majority white congregations and communities, wondered how they might exchange racial segregation for kingdom solidarity.
These ministry leaders understood that there is meaningful racial justice work to be done in their majority white contexts. After all, since the invention of race was precipitated by the warped desires of those of European descent to gain power by exploiting those who would eventually be racialized as non-white, it makes sense to prioritize addressing racial segregation and inequity in white communities. Christians are called to loving solidarity across lines of cultural division and hostility for God’s glory and have been given all the necessary motivation to disrupt the racial status quo in our congregations. Since race's invention was precipitated by those of European descent to gain power by exploiting those who could be racialized as non-white, addressing racial segregation and inequity in white communities must be prioritized. (1/2) Click To Tweet Christians are called to loving solidarity across lines of cultural division and hostility for God’s glory and have been given all the necessary motivation to disrupt the racial status quo in our congregations. (2/2) Click To Tweet
But the call to disciple white Christians out of our captivity to the racialized patterns of the world can be isolating and fatiguing. Many of those who have said yes to this ministry find themselves alone. The racial homogeneity and segregation which makes their ministry necessary also contributes to the headwinds these women and men face while bearing witness to the reconciled Kingdom of God.
As the weariness and loneliness grow, so does the temptation to leave behind the hard-packed soil of these majority white communities for more fruitful land. But they choose to remain because they understand that God has called them, people who know the captivities of racial whiteness from the inside, to bring the gospel to their neighbors. It is this tension – between cost and the call – that the old practice of pilgrimage offers a third way of remaining faithful.
Pilgrimage as a Formative Practice to Remain Faithful
What might pilgrimage in this context look like? Despite their contemporary location in a segregated American society, the Christians seeking to disciple racially divided churches will share at least three things in common with our pilgriming ancestors:
- First, a pilgrimage is a temporary dislocation. Pilgrims are choosing to introduce instability into lives which can easily become bogged down by the status quo.
During our three-day tour through the South, we spend an afternoon at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, AL. At two different sites, the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial to Peace and Justice, participants encounter a stark and terrible narrative which begins with the transatlantic slave trade, runs through Jim Crow oppression and lynching, and continues into contemporary mass incarceration. Walking slowly and quietly through these curated spaces, the pilgrims are so thoroughly jarred from their regular lives that, when the time comes to return home, they do so with new ways of interpreting their communities.
- A second commonality contemporary pilgrims share with those who came before us is the sacred nature of the places to which we travel. A pilgrim is not interested in a tourist attraction. She is in search of ground made holy by the faithfulness of the saints who’ve lived, struggled, and persevered in a particular place.
This sort of searching can be endlessly creative. I once met a white man from rural Iowa who, once a year, hitches his mobile smoker to the back of his pickup truck and drives a few hundred miles to the South Side of Chicago. His destination is a hundred-year-old Black church which holds a summer barbecue and concert in one of our local parks. This is a congregation which has been a pillar in a neighborhood which has known legal segregation, housing displacement, and, more recently, the shuttering of public schools and gentrification. Through it all this congregation has faithfully worshipped, served, advocated, and been a haven for those persisting through systemic racism. It seems this man has come to recognize this sacred ground and made it a part of a yearly pilgrimage. His time serving alongside his sisters and brothers must shape how he returns home.
- Finally, to be a pilgrimage, a journey must have as its goal greater closeness with God and God’s priorities in the return to daily life. A pilgrimage is a temporary experience filled with meaning whose impact can be felt for years to come.
John O’Donohue captures the pilgrim’s homeward orientation quite profoundly in the last stanza of his poem, “For the Traveler:”
May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.
We don’t embark on a pilgrimage to escape the challenges of our call, no matter how weary and isolated we might feel. While a pilgrimage may offer the temporary refreshment of distance, its ultimate purpose is to return us home refreshed and recommitted to our God and his work of righteousness and justice in our communities.
A church compromised by complicity with the racially segregating status quo needs faithful women and men who are committed to the work of discipling Christians toward the reconciled and just kingdom of God. This call can be difficult and its fruit should be measured over the course of years and decades. Pilgrimage is a practice which, by calling us occasionally away, allows us to recommit to this good work for years to come. While a pilgrimage may offer the temporary refreshment of distance, its ultimate purpose is to return us home refreshed and recommitted to our God and his work of righteousness and justice in our communities. Click To Tweet
*Editorial Note: David Swanson is a Leading Voice for Missio Alliance, and the author of Rediscipling the White Church: From Cheap Diversity to True Solidarity, released in 2020. Swanson is the founding pastor of New Community Covenant Church, a multiracial congregation on the Southside of Chicago. He will be presenting a plenary talk at Awakenings 2023 entitled “Disrupting Legacies of White Supremacy in the Church.” Join us in Chicago this April!
*The image accompanying this article is part of the memorial honoring the thousands of enslaved Black lynching victims across America, at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
1 “Sankofa is a West African word meaning “looking backward to move forward.” The Sankofa Journey seeks to assist disciples of Christ on their move toward a righteous response to the social ills related to racism. This interactive experience explores historic sites of importance in the Civil Rights movement, places of oppression and inequality for people of color, while seeking to move participants toward healing the wounds and racial divide caused by hundreds of years of racial injustice in the United States of America. A Sankofa Journey increases one’s awareness, understanding, and sensitivity for past struggles, victories, and continuing racist oppression existing in our country. The journey explores how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go. Sankofa allows participants the opportunity to consider how together, we might better address racial righteousness in our church, our nation, and our world.” (https://covchurch.org/mercy-justice/sankofa/), accessed March 15th, 2023).
2 Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion. (San Francisco: HarperOne Publishers, 2012).
3 IBID, Stark.