By Casey Callahan
Miami doesn’t need another group of educated, privileged, and predominately white people to come to town and fix, rescue, teach, heal, or save them. CBF-commissioned directors Jason & Angel Pittman don’t even have to tell me this as I prepare to bring just such a group to serve with them at Touching Miami with Love this March; I know it, they know it, and I daresay most of my students know it. They don’t need us nearly as much as we need them. And so we are going, with all of our authentically-true selves—including our education, our entitlements, our vast array of privileged experiences. We are going, but not on a mission to save them. We’re going on a journey to save ourselves. So let’s be honest, and call it what it is: it’s not a spring break mission trip; it’s a spring break pilgrimage.
Mission trips are important, and I say that in honest confession: they’ve made me who I am today. Beyond important, they’re mandatory, if we profess to live out either the Great Commandments or the Great Commission. But in our postmodern and increasingly post-Christian world, we need fewer mission trips and more pilgrimages. We need to focus on saving others less and saving ourselves more. Why? Because after a certain point, mission trips start to only reinforce the broken understanding that being on Mission with God is a temporary thing, ripe for a picturesque Facebook album or vivid Vine videos, but barren with the kind of substantive fruit that nourishes real transformation of the self or the local community.
Where mission trips assume inward spiritual integrity and outward spiritual frailty, the idea of pilgrimage flips the switch. When you venture onto pilgrimage, you claim the vulnerable confession that you are incomplete, partial, and lacking of a broader truth. You are a work in progress, a person in need of transformation, and as those first disciples learned day after day following after the holy pilgrim Jesus, that can only come along the journey.
Historically, the term “pilgrimage” denotes a special journey to an especially holy place, such as the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca or the Judeo-Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem [and surrounding areas, aka “The Holy Land”]. Such trips are often only made once in a person’s lifetime. In light of this predominant understanding, there is a danger of “watering down” the potency of pilgrimage by ascribing it to a stateside destination like Miami, a place more known for being sunny than sacred. Yet, this word does speak to the Christian imperative to live on journey with God, seeking to find glimpses of the holy in places other than home, through encounters with people who appear “other” than us. After all, isn’t this what Jesus did throughout his traveling ministry?
In a little over a month, a bus load of eager Clemson students will start making the 700+ mile trek south, praying that when we begin heading north on I-95 six days later, we’ll be “changed for the better” as Glinda and Elphaba sing in the Broadway musical Wicked. We are going out of our love for God, love for neighbor, AND love for self. And hopefully we will do some good work along the way, whether it’s treating the kids at TML with love & respect, expanding the Image of God through encounters with Overtown residents, engaging in spiritually-stirring conversations around table with the Pittman’s, or fixing some broken items around the TML building. But when our bus returns home to Clemson, I want this trip to be judged not by how much we good we did for others, but by how much good we did for ourselves. I want each fellow traveler to return with a truer sense of self, a wider recognition of God, and a more radical commitment to love neighbor. [And that means our neighbors here at home, not just on special trips.]
The model for these kinds of trips has been shifting for years now, just as our own expectations and outcomes have been shifting. It’s time to shift our language, too. Goodbye mission trip, hello pilgrimage.
Casey Callahan is the Cooperative Student Fellowship campus minister at Clemson University and the minister of students and mission at First Baptist Church of Clemson, S.C.