Twenty-five youth and adult mentors from Grace Episcopal Church, Carthage, Missouri in the Diocese of West Missouri, journeyed to Turkey recently to explore three of the seven churches described in the Revelation to John.
The youth group raised funds for its trip over a three-year period through an annual dinner theater, silent auctions and "rent a youth" programs, as well as private contributions, said the Rev. Steven Wilson.
Departing on Memorial Day, the group of students arrived in Izmir, a city of 2.5 million on the Aegean coast, once known as Smyrna. In the fortress overlooking the city, built on the foundations laid by Alexander the Great's troops, they reflected on what it means to be "faithful even to the point of death," as stated in Revelation, Wilson said.
This section of John's vision was even more poignant given that the view below the castle was of the hippodrome where the aged bishop, Polycarp, a student of the Apostle John, was martyred for his faith by being burned at the stake.
From Izmir, the group arrived in the area of ancient Ephesus, the greatest city of the Roman Aegean. Only 15 percent excavated, the ruins still took two entire days of touring. The extravagant houses of the Roman elite, viewed through glass floors, as well as public buildings like the library dedicated to the "honor, courage, wisdom and nobility of Celsus the Founder" reminded them of the importance of living modestly, Wilson said.
The group had the opportunity to ponder the meaning of Jesus "very God and very Man" in the site of the Council of Ephesus where the church conclusively stated that Christ was born the Son of God. They also viewed the ruins of the Temple of Artemis, once one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
In the Church of the Tomb of St. John, the group saw how the church's three renunciations and three affirmations in baptism (The Book of Common Prayer, pages 302-303) stem from ancient practice. They celebrated Eucharist at the supposed House of the Virgin Mary. They also heard the imam of the 13th century Mosque of the Lord Jesus read the Qur'an and they had the chance talk about the importance of the major religions respecting one another, Wilson said.
Moving inland through the valley of the Meander River, they arrived at Laodicea, the city with hot and cold springs. From there, they visited Pamukkale, an ancient spa town surrounded by a massive cemetery that sits atop a cliff. While there, they hiked to the tomb of the Apostle Philip, overlooking the city.
Finally, they boarded a plane to Istanbul where they visited the fabled Grand Bazaar and were awed by the 1,500-year-old walls of the city, Wilson said.
The next day, Trinity Sunday, they visited the Blue Mosque, and the monuments of the Hippodrome square. Next, they moved into the mighty Church of the Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, where the first Council of Constantinople met for its final session in 381 to say together their revision of the Nicene Creed which is used in Christian churches today.
From there, the students moved on to the Church of St. Savior in the Fields, a 14th century parish church. Finally, they went to Kumkapi, the Christian neighborhood of Istanbul.
With a long and exhausting flight home ahead of them, the students sat up much of the night, compared notes on the experience and decided three most important points of the trip.
The first was that Scripture happens in places, and that it is more intelligible if you study it, rather than merely "feel something." Next, there are models for Islam and Christianity to co-exist and all people should do what they can to understand them. Finally, they agreed that history is complex and layered, Wilson said.
They laid plans for the next foreign youth pilgrimage, tentatively scheduled for June 2010, to Rome, Turkey, or Israel.