Mission trip identity: A tourist, a pilgrim or a seeker?

June 17, 2013

Canon Lucinda Ashby tackles weeds in the Puerto Rican jungle.

Canon Lucinda Ashby tackles weeds in the Puerto Rican jungle.

[Episcopal Diocese of Idaho] A mission trip experience lends itself to all kinds of reflection, and each person on it has his or her own unique approach to reflection and ability to reflect.

For me, a mission trip tends to reveal an inner tension – a tension between being of a culture and being an outsider. Having grown up in Latin America, I had an inner identity that enabled me to fit quite well into a Latin American context. Of course, that sense of belonging was quickly called into question when, as a young girl, I looked in a mirror: Instead of the girl with long black hair, brown eyes and dark skin that I imagined I was, I was disturbed to see reflected a green-eyed, light brown-haired skinny white girl.

It was this reflection that again emerged on the mission trip. I had thought I could slip comfortably into my Latin American self, only to find that, for those around me, I looked like a tourist from the Intermountain West.

But hours of chopping away at jungle vines and grasses (that I knew would grow back in mere minutes when I wasn’t looking) allowed me time to think more about this disturbing disconnection that sometimes exists between my outer self and my inner self – and it allowed me to muse about my spiritual journey in an uncomfortable way.

What I came up with is an understanding that sometimes in my journey I really am a tourist. I prefer to dance along the surface of the experience, capturing snapshots and adventure stories with which to delight an unseen audience; sometimes that audience is my own self, justifying my needs to be a consumer of God’s goodness and kindness in a way that does not challenge me or call upon me to change in any way.

At other times, I am a pilgrim – steadfast, hard-working, walking the path of Christ faithfully. This is probably who I strive to be most often in my spiritual journey, and perhaps I could convince myself that there is nobleness in it. There is great value in putting one foot in front of the other (or even hacking away for hours at the jungle) for the sake of the kingdom, almost without thinking, simply because it is a good thing to do – and it might even earn me points when I make my way to the heavenly gates.

But I think that what I really want is to be more of a seeker: a person who craves and longs for a closer, more intimate relationship with God – a person who, once in a while, sits down and doesn’t worry about the jungle vines (whose tendrils are, even as I think about it, rooting their way into the land that I have just cleared of them), but who rather considers the amazing ways in which God keeps finding me. I notice that as I keep seeking God in one direction, God finds me in yet another – and there is surprise and amazement in that spiritual experience.

Does this in any way solve that inner tension that I have while on a mission trip? Perhaps not culturally – I will probably always be of two cultures that reside uncomfortably in the same self – but spiritually it gives me something to consider.

There are many “seekers” who walk into a church building or who come to Paradise Point Episcopal Camp looking for a closer relationship with God. Not satisfied with being a tourist or a mere consumer of religiosity, or the load of walking a spiritual path that seems solemn and methodical, seekers want to be acquainted with the surprising and hopeful aspects of God. Seekers want to know that God cannot be controlled by them, and they search for a source of good news in a world badgered by bad news. The invitation to us all is to tap into that aspect of our spiritual journey, that aspect where we are seekers, and to allow that part of ourselves to meet the seeker in others. It is an invitation to share amazement about God and the ways that God finds each of us with other seekers who also crave a surprising and hope-filled God.

People talk about wanting more people in their church buildings. May I suggest that what we really long for is to be in contact with more people who seek God?

– The Rev. Lucinda Ashby is canon to the ordinary for congregational vitality in the Episcopal Diocese of Idaho (http://www.episcopalidaho.org/). This column first appeared in the Idaho Episcopalian.

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