This past June I traveled on a pilgrimage to South Africa with 17 members of my church in Dallas. One of my fellow pilgrims was my eight-year-old daughter.
Actually, my wife and I had not always thought she should come with me. She certainly wanted to (“I want to see giraffes in the wild!”), but then, she wasn’t the one paying for it. Added to concerns about the expense was a faulty initial understanding about the impact of kids on travel. A few years ago I read a hilarious blog post about the difference between a trip and a vacation. “A vacation is best described as time away from a job and/or the monotony and frustrations of day-to-day life, with the goal of relaxing and having fun,” the writer opined. “Not to be a super downer, but chances are, if you have kids (and they are coming with you), you aren’t going on a vacation at all. You’re going on what I like to call… a trip. You see, a trip is simply a journey to a place.”
I can’t help but laugh at this blog, even if it’s a bit snarky and overblown, because behind the humor is a reality that most parents feel: the presence of your kids usually means your attention and energy will be nearly entirely focused on their health and wellbeing. That’s why vacations – if you subscribe to the blogger’s definition – can’t possibly include your kids.
Maybe that’s why I hesitated to bring my child on this pilgrimage, because I was focused on the ways she might impede the goals of the experience. But a pilgrimage is not vacation, it’s a very particular kind of trip, the kind where you go for the specific purpose of encountering God in a new way. It is a trip in which you intentionally look for God, trusting that God has shown up in remarkable ways to people who have journeyed there before you. Pilgrimages are trips in which the goal is not so much relaxation of the body as restoration of the soul, and you measure the trip’s “success” by the number of times you experience awe and wonder, rather than how many drink coupons you had left over at the end of the week.
When that truth finally settled into my mind, I realized God had been calling my daughter onto this pilgrimage just like the rest of us. From that point on, I never doubted that she was supposed to be there.
Obviously, it did change the experience though. For starters, there was much less time for contemplative prayer or journaling or just about anything you might characterize as “quiet.” And meals were pretty stressful (“Sorry, kiddo, but they don’t have Annie’s mac-and-cheese in South Africa. Try this biltong!”). But for every way my daughter’s presence prevented me from repeating some of my favorite aspects of past pilgrimages, it also facilitated new holy experiences I would simply not have had were she not there. For example, I couldn’t just go to the District Six Museum to quietly look at artifacts of apartheid; I had to find words to describe to an eight-year-old how a society could choose to do such things to people. I couldn’t just enjoy the experience of meeting with Archbishop Tutu; I first had to teach her who he is and impart to her the incredible truth that the loving way of Jesus really can change the world.
Frankly, we spent a lot of time doing “grown up things.” We went to a prison to learn about restorative justice. We toured the projects of a multinational relief agency that serves poor communities ravaged by HIV/AIDS. Even when we were hanging out at the tiny preschool that my church has supported for nearly 20 years, we spent as much time listening to administrators and teachers as we did playing with kids.
And yet, she was up for every bit of it. She’s a kid, so she had a remarkable ability to find joy everywhere we went. I swear she could smell a playground from a mile away. She insisted our trip leaders tell funny stories to pass the time on long drives. And her love of singing encouraged all of us to sing as we prayed in the mornings and evenings and other times during the day. I will always remember the night we drove out on safari and the driver turned out the lights of the truck so we could see the stars, and after a few minutes of quiet rapture, my daughter began to quietly sing the Alleluia refrain of “Seek Ye First.”
I am absolutely sure that the other adult pilgrims loved and appreciated her. She began as a sort of adorable mascot, but she became a true fellow pilgrim in her own right. Her wonder-filled eyes helped the rest of us look for awe and wonder. Her lack of cynicism helped all of us release ours. Her faith came to inform our faith.
Time will tell how the whole experience will impact her life, but then, isn’t the same true for all the adults who went on the pilgrimage? Aren’t we all still unpacking the many gifts God gives us on such journeys long after we return home? Isn’t the point of the experience about more than successfully traveling there and back again? This is where my role as parent comes in. Whenever we look back at pictures and videos of our adventures, I try to gently turn the conversation to wonder where and how God was with us, and I invite her to think about what God may have wanted her to see and experience. Frankly, I need to ponder these questions, too, so this is yet one more holy aspect we get to share.
I don’t know that I’ll bring one of my kids on every pilgrimage I undertake, but I know I won’t hesitate when another opportunity arises.
And not just for their sake. For mine, too.