Pilgrimage is defined as “a journey, especially a long one, made to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion.” My global immersion experience in Myanmar was indeed a pilgrimage. I traveled as a learner, a pilgrim seeking to connect with the rich and deep history of Baptist tradition and at the same time grow in awareness of other religious practices. The journey was long but not nearly as long as it had been for Ann and Adoniram Judson. While I suffered through sitting in the middle seat for twenty-four hours of air travel, those missionary pioneers endured sea voyages of four months or more traveling to India and Burma.
My journey took me to many sacred places where the Judson history and ongoing legacy came alive. I got to stand in the front of the Amherst Church while speaking of the Judsons’ faithfulness and determination, and after extolling her boldness and courage, I looked upon Ann Judson’s grave. When reflecting with the group, I was privileged to hear them make the connection between baby Charles’ grave that we saw in Mawlamyine with the story of Sarah B. Judson’s death and Adoniram’s separation from his younger children. I celebrated the Judson missionary legacy with countless Baptists from numerous people groups in a crowded venue erected for that very occasion, and I worshiped in both English and Burmese with a vibrant congregation that also operates a medical clinic. Besides these, I respectfully and inquisitively visited sites sacred to the religion of others. On numerous occasions, I sensed that I stood on holy ground.
As I consider how this experience impacts my future ministry, my mind continues to return to the pilgrimage metaphor. Since returning from Myanmar, I have begun to view congregational ministry as pilgrimage. At a literal, surface level, the comparisons come easily. Many ministers, myself included, have journeyed great distances away from families of origin, from grown children, and even from grandchildren to heed the call of God. We make the journey as an act of religious devotion and a sense of a higher purpose for our lives. We visit the sacred sites of worship and fellowship with our congregations. In these simple ways, ministers are surely pilgrims.
But, I believe there is more. The great distance we travel is not simply geographical, but it is spiritual and even theological. We must not only leave behind others to make the journey, but we must leave behind ourselves. Responding to God’s call requires that we put distance between who we were and who we are becoming, because one who travels with God never returns the same. Often the sacred journey demands unlearning that which is no longer helpful and relearning for the benefit of self and those whom we serve. For the pilgrim minister, every lived experience is an opportunity to observe, to learn, and to grow.
When ministry is viewed as pilgrimage, the very life of the individual minister becomes an act of religious devotion. Of course, devotion still includes praying, reading, and worshiping, but the minister on pilgrimage cultivates awareness of God’s presence in the experiences of the everyday. The lights, colors, and sounds of creation call for wakefulness, and simply breathing potentially invokes praise of the One in whom “we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28a) Leisure and activity, quiet and clamor all contain the capacity for sacred significance. Even mundane and menial tasks hold the makings for holiness if rendered as service to God and humankind.
The ministry pilgrimage journeys not to one, specific holy site, but to innumerable special places. As a congregational shepherd, I am privileged to share sacred space and time with those within my care. Joyful occasions like weddings and births bring both grateful reflection and jubilant celebration. Sitting by hospital beds and holding hands at funeral homes forge holy, human bonds as we share fear, faith, and ultimately fragility. Conversations in the church office and fellowship around dinner tables are potential platforms for great moves of the Spirit. Raucous laughter and wordless hugs easily become healing balms when offered out of a heart that overflows with love. And of course, administering the sacraments or ordinances ranks high among holy honors of ministry. Surely, nothing compares to being in the baptismal pool with a brand-new follower of Jesus. Serving the Lord’s Supper is no less a privilege, and my own call was confirmed on the day that I presided over the table the first time. Sacred sites on this pilgrimage are everywhere for the minister who is awake and aware.
Although not included in the definition, I affirm humility as a primary characteristic of a pilgrim. Going on pilgrimage requires putting aside pride and preference, foregoing the familiar, and eschewing the easy. Sacred journeys stipulate sacrifice and cast off comfort. The pilgrim leaves behind the safe surroundings of home in order to step into the lives of those in the native context, as much as is possible putting on new habits and becoming part of the culture. A pilgrim is not a tourist, observing from outside, but one seeking to be transformed through divine encounters and to be shaped by new relationships in the process.
During my time in Myanmar, humility was frequently at the forefront of my thoughts. I experienced generous hospitality everywhere we went. I was greeted warmly and enthusiastically in hotels, restaurants, tourist sites, and at the Baptist Bicentennial Mission. Amid the delightful reception, there were days when I was hot, sometimes tired, and otherwise uncomfortable. On a few occasions, I was not particularly thrilled about the food being served or the bathroom facilities being provided. I hope in those moments that I was at least gracious. As the trip wore on, I became more aware of and more attuned to the real nature of humility. Ultimately, it is the ability to set aside self in order to value another.
As I continue to consider ministry as pilgrimage, humility plays a key role. I cannot be an effective minister of the gospel of unless I am willing to enter humbly into the sacred spaces of people’s lives. To serve faithfully, I must set aside myself and practice valuing the others in my midst, because I can most assuredly count on being moved out of my comfort zone and into the unknown. Thankfully, I can rely on partnership with the Spirit in becoming more like the Pilgrim of All Pilgrims, Jesus Christ, who “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:6-8) If Jesus gave up the glorious reality of equality with God to establish himself as one of us and chose hunger, thirst, fatigue, and filth over heaven to pilgrimage to our world, then certainly I can practice humility with my fellow humans. When I commit to serving in that way, I am privileged to participate with God in a living relationship and a partnership of infinite possibilities.
ANGELA BARKER JACKSON