Often, when I am learning something new, I talk about it like I’m going on some journey. In reality, I am usually found at my desk or in a coffee shop reading a book, researching online, or doodling in a notebook about what I am learning. I use the phrase, “I’m going on a journey,” a lot in ministry. It is a way for me to remind myself that I can always learn new things. Even when I am not going physically on some pilgrimage, I use this phrase to remind myself there is growth along an educational process.
And while physical movement and travel are great ways to educate one’s self, there is value in the spiritual and mental pilgrimage too. Just because you do not have pictures of those glorious mountains or landscapes to accompany your journey, doesn’t mean there isn’t value to where you were before your journey and where you found yourself at the end of your journey.
A few years ago, I was new in the college chaplaincy world. I knew from my experience that a college chaplain could be a great resource when struggling with life and faith. And as such, I wanted to be that to my students. On my first day on the job, I had a male student stop by my office and proclaim, “I’ll be at bible study, but not chapel. Because I don’t believe women should be ministers!” He made that proclamation and then bolted out of my office before I could realize what happened.
And yes, that student did show up to bible study. And in time, he came to chapel. He even came to hold leadership positions for ministry groups and became one of “my regulars” for the programming my office offered. But it took a lot to get him from just attending bible study to being a regular.
What it took was hard work and education and building a relationship with this young man. I took an interest in his activities and life and he slowly took notice of this. He in time opened up to me about why he proclaimed that message on the first day of meeting me. Throughout our relationship we conducted research on the topic of women in ministry — we studied, we read, we prayed. We shared meals. Watching sporting events. Went on retreats.
We left the dialogue on and kept checking in on one another. By the time this student graduated, he was more open, discerning, and welcoming than that first encounter. And he taught me the importance of keeping lines of communication open, especially when you might want to shut them off. Because if you are willing, you are able to journey with others to some pretty incredible moments — moments of acceptance, love, and growth. And that is what a pilgrimage is all about.
This experience of journeying with students to learn and discover something new about themselves and God comes up again and again for me in college ministry. When that student proclaimed his message on my first day, I was not sure what I had gotten myself into. But now, I look back fondly. Knowing that the journey he took, that we took together, led to me being able to take journey after journey with countless students. And that has been the best gift.
Each time a student walks into my office or stops me on the sidewalk with a proclamation or question, I know we are bound to enter a new journey together to learn more about one another and God. My only wish is that there would be some way to have a snapshot of these moments because they are just as breathtaking as those pictures of glorious mountains or landscapes from other physical journeys taken.