The Power of a Pilgrimage: Part Two in a Series

Date Posted: 12/10/2015

Several clergy participating in Advanced Pastoral Leadership trips to Iona and South Africa share how this adventure enhanced their spiritual insight and perspective.
According to Advanced Pastoral Leadership (APL) participant Rev. Nolan Donald, WordServe Fulshear, Iona has a long and illustrious history and is well known as being “The Cradle of Christianity” in Scotland. While that is without doubt one of the main reasons that a reported 130,000 visitors come to Iona each year, he says there is much more to the island than that. Notes Nolan, “It is striking that despite the number of visitors to the island, people leave with a pervading feeling of peace and restoration.”
Nolan’s Story
The time at Iona was really special for me. Being in a place that has had a practicing Christian community for 1500 years was really powerful. Thinking about the longevity of the Christian witness, God's faithfulness, and the history that has occurred during its existence was really inspiring and reassuring as I thought about the ups and downs of ministry today.
Before we went to Iona, I really was unaware of what it was or its significance. Several of my APL colleagues advocated strongly that we include it as a stop on our trip. The day before we went to the island, I spent some time reading the history online and investigating its significance. Over and over again, people called Iona a "thin space" (a place where the distance between this world and God's world is paper thin). After spending 24 hours on the island, I would definitely agree. Worshiping in the abbey, sharing great fellowship with our colleagues, and walking the island in pilgrimage all became sacramental activities that seemed to help give a real sense of the closeness of God.
As I read about the island, I was particularly drawn to the weekly pilgrimage that the Iona Community leads around the island. Each week on Tuesday, the Community guides people around the island for reflection, mediation, and worship in various spots on the island. We were there on a Friday afternoon, but I really wanted to experience the pilgrimage journey. I was able to find a book in the welcome shop that showed the stops of the pilgrimage and offered some Scripture and thoughts to use on a self-guided journey. I spent that Friday afternoon walking the island with two of my colleagues. It was an incredibly beautiful journey--the island, the geography, the conversation, and the faith insights from the little book I bought.
I deeply hope that my first trip to Iona wasn't my last. I long to go back, to stay longer, and to soak in the wonderful presence of God that was so apparent in that place. 

Out of Africa: Rev. Ray Hughes
Rev. Ray Hughes, pastor for Foundry UMC’s Fry Road campus, was one of eight in the current APL (Advanced Pastoral Leadership) class recently returning from a pilgrimage to Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa. Two other APL pastors from another conference, spouses and facilitators boosted the group to 15. “Our readings and discussions beforehand prepared us fairly well in terms of understanding the historical context of the ministry we observed and the people we interacted with in South Africa,” Ray shares.

“Having that knowledge at a distance, however, is quite different than the powerful experience of walking alongside them in real conversation.” He gained a better understanding of church leaders’ role in moving the country out of apartheid toward a democratic government, and how the next generation of leaders is striving to further the vision of hope and justice for all people amidst ongoing struggles. “We also were especially impacted by the courage of everyday Christians in South Africa. 

They are a diverse people, seeking reconciliation and living their lives to be a part of that movement. In spite of intense suffering, the recurring theme bubbling forth was the hope of the Kingdom. I thought of Jesus’ words to Peter “the gates of Hell will not prevail against God’s people. We realized that when evil seems to prevail, we often have a stronger sense of God’s redemptive hope.” Ray distinguishes the APL leaders as pilgrims rather than missionaries or tourists in this environment. 

“We were there to learn from people who have an incredible story to tell.  It is a story of pain, forgiveness, hope and redemption.  We saw God at work in a different context, but as we processed our experiences as a group, we were able to find connections with our own experiences here in the USA. As South African pastor and author Trevor Hudson pointed out, our reflections on our experiences are often more transformational than the experiences themselves. We often see our own context in a new way or with a bit more clarity, realizing that our story is not that different in many ways.”