For two weeks I traveled from Tel-Aviv Yafo, Israel to Madaba, Jordan; from Kiryat Shmona to Bethlehem, Palestine. As I sojourned in these places I listened and learned, I watched and weighed what I saw, tasted, heard, and walked around. Not only did I pay attention to the communities and locations I was visiting, but also the group -- the evangelical "Holy Land" tour -- with which I participated.
Last week I started sharing perspectives and informed observations from my time in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. They are limited, to be sure. However, I want to take the time to focus on pertinent issues regarding these places and U.S. involvement and experience. To do so, I am inviting other informed and expert voices into the conversation. The blogs focus on two particular issues: politics & peace in the region and Christian travel and "Holy Land" tourism.
This week, we turn to reflecting on "Christian tourism" and "pilgrimage" in the "Holy Land." That's a lot of quotation marks, but that's because all of these terms need defining, reflection, critique, and nuance. Later on in the week, I will be sharing my reflections on evangelical Holy Land tours and pilgrimages, but first I invited our tour organizer and leader (and a good friend and mentor of mine) Rev. Richard Ross to share his intimate insight on Christian travel with us. His guest blog will help us begin to understand what Christian tourism is, why it happens, and who is involved.
Richard is the founder and director of Educon Travel, which you will hear more about below. Over the years he has traveled around the world, meeting people and building relationships, immersing himself in a variety of cultures and ministry settings. Plus, he's a cool dude with a beard, a coffee drinking habit, jazz inclinations, and a motorcycle hobby that would make any hipster green with envy.
Below, Richard shares some of his influences as a professional traveler and entrepreneur and also some reflections on what it means to travel with Christian intentions and looking for divine intimations in holy sites and cultural experiences. Enjoy!
After I graduated from high school my friend, John, and I went to Europe for three months. We’d been planning all year long for it, working odd jobs to raise money to go, studying the sites we might see, and dreaming. Every couple of weeks we’d go to the international terminal at SeaTac Airport (Seattle) and watch the flights come and go. Our enthusiasm was palatable. We could taste it. If you knew us, you could probably taste it too! We were so excited for the “Go!” We wanted to go to Europe, breaking free from our daily routines and experiencing the world.
We were not disappointed. We stayed in the cheapest hostels money could buy! I remember being in a sleeping bag on the rooftop of a youth hostel in Athens listening to young people like us play their guitars and flutes into the wee hours of the morning. And I remember lying on top of a 3-high bunk bed in a hostel in Venice listening to the water splash against the wall of our dorm room. And I remember sleeping on the trains we took from city to city in the night.
And the sites we saw were magnificent! Their histories predated my own country by hundreds of years, which was humbling. And the preservation of the sites by the countries we visited showed me the respect the people had for history, which instilled in me a respect and appreciation for the old things: history, art, architecture, language, culture, all of it.
One ah-ha experience I had as I traveled western Europe was my realization that no culture has it all sewn up. Each has something unique to offer the world. I ate food I would never have eaten in America (and it was delicious), I saw architecture and art that was unique to its own region (and it was beautiful), I experienced different ways of looking at the world through the eyes of friends I made along the way (and it was challenging), and I realized there is no “us and them,” but there’s only an “us.” My world got bigger on this journey, but at the same time it got much, much smaller as I came to understand the things I held in common with the people I met along the way.
In college a few years later I went to the Holy Land on a study tour. My world again grew as it got smaller, but more importantly, for me as a Christian, I was able to set the stories to the places. At first my reason for going to Israel was the “Go!” But after I got there my perspective changed. Now it was about seeing the stories in the Bible through the eyes of those who wrote it, who lived it. And the Bible came alive for me in a new way when I saw things like the foundations of the ancient walls of Old City Jerusalem; the tombs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the waters of the Jordan River. These and other sites brought to life 2,000 years of Bible history for me, and my faith was encouraged.
Since that time I’ve felt that visiting places of history is something that should not be thought of as a leisure activity or as something to do only after one has raised a family and retired. But it’s something that every person should do as a part of their experience of becoming human, growing in one’s understanding and appreciation of other people and their culture, history, art, and language. And visiting the Holy Land and other places of biblical importance (like Turkey, Greece, Italy, Egypt and Jordan), can play a huge part in a person growing as a Christian.
For me “Christian travel” is Christians on a pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is a very old word usually associated with particular religious traditions. However, I like to think of pilgrimage in broader terms, as something as simple as “the search,” the search for meaning, for depth, for a sense of connection as regards one’s faith. For instance, I wanted to connect with the call Moses got from God at Mt. Sinai. What was that like? What did Moses experience when he was on the mountain? So I led fellow pilgrims on an early morning climb up to the summit of Mt. Sinai, where we saw the sun rise and read the words of God to Moses from Exodus 3. It was a moving experience. And so it is when we visit the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized, or Mt. Gerizim where the blessings were read to Israel, or Antioch on the Orontes from which St. Paul launched his ministry. Christian travel and pilgrimage are about reflecting on the heart of God in the Bible and what this means for me.
The reason I started a new Christian travel organization was an accident. As a pastor I wanted to lead my church on a tour of the 7 Cities of the Revelation. I’d been on a Footsteps of St. Paul tour a couple of years earlier, one a friend had promoted. But I was very disappointed. The guides were sour, the hotels were in terrible locations, there were all kinds of additional fees we had not been warned about, and the selection of sites was sometimes disappointing. It was then that I realized that Christian tours are often organized by people who are not necessarily Christian or in tune with the whole point of a pilgrimage, that is, a transformative, life-changing experience, and they obviously did not understand that everything that happens on a tour makes a difference.
For over a year I searched for someone who could organize my tour the way I envisioned it: a 3-day educational retreat on the Island of Patmos followed by a tour of the ruins of the 7 Cities of the Revelation in Turkey. But no one could do it. No one. Well there was one, but his prices were out of this world! (Literally, as no one in my world would be able to afford his trip!) So I did it myself, and in the process I created a tour organization.
Educon Travel is the name of my organization. Our motto is, educational and economical Christian touring. I think Educon Travel is unique and fills a niche in the market of Christian travel. To my knowledge no one else offers tours which are rooted in an understanding of the power of educational and experience-based touring. I talked to a man whom I met at a site on a Footsteps of St. Paul tour. He was with another tour group. I asked him how it was going, and he said, “I don’t know yet. We’ve been touring for five days and I still don’t know what the point of it is.” If he’d been on our tour, he would have known!
The locations we organize our tours around all have something to do with the story of the Christian faith. My two favorite countries are Israel and Turkey. Greece, Italy, Egypt and Jordan follow close behind, but Israel, for example is where it all began. There are great archaeological sites and worship sites at every turn, and because it’s a very small country one can see and experience the land very easily and quickly. Turkey, called Asia Minor in the Bible, unarguably has the best biblical archaeological sites, in number and quality, to be found anywhere on the planet, dating from the Neolithic era to the Greeks, from the Romans to the Byzantines. In all of the countries we visit we always enjoy great hospitality, food, accommodations, and local, cultural entertainment.
When I organized my 7 Cities of the Revelation tour I evaluated a whole bunch of things that I thought might make a tour good or bad. I wondered why some sites were selected for a tour and others weren’t. I was frustrated with the added-on expenses for “special” excursions and with the lousy food I’d eaten at hotel buffets. I marveled at the hotel selection, often finding ourselves in shoddy, unwalkable neighborhoods. I thought about all of the grumpy tour guides I’d met. And I also questioned whether or not group touring had to be as tedious as what I’d experienced. This led me to write what I call the “7 Principles for Touring,” the building blocks for all of my future tours. Here they are:
- Our tours are theme-based: We choose a theme which guides us as we create an itinerary for a tour, one which people will find personally gratifying in their minds and hearts.
- With a carefully chosen theme and itinerary in hand, we craft an educational outline for the tour. For us it’s not enough to just see the sites, but we want to understand what happened in these places and what those events mean in our lives today.
- Our prices are economical and up-front: Our goal is to give everyone, not just the “traveling class,” the opportunity for Christian travel. We keep prices low and we don’t surprise people with exorbitant fees for “special excursions.”
- We handpick our guides: Believing that a guide can make or break a tour, we look for positive, personable, smart, energetic, guides who can add value to our tours.
- We enjoy authentic local food, which is so much better than “American buffets” in hotels!
- We stay in accommodations in interesting, walkable locations.
- We create memorable WOW! experiences throughout our tours. If you’ve ever been on a bus tour for a week or two, you’ll immediately notice the difference. We do things like renew marriage vows in Cana, sing hymns in the theater in Ephesus, share the Lord’s Supper in the Dormition Abbey, have a dinner cruise on the Bosphorus Straight, learn Greek dance on the Island of Patmos, worship the Lord on Mt. Sinai, and many, many other things.
These principles are the things people talk about after a tour, the things that make a tour memorable.
Sometimes a person asks me for advice about how to put together their own tour. I always point them to my 7 Principles, highlighting the importance of having a theme and creating an itinerary. After all, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you probably won’t find it! So I say, choose a theme. It could be something as simple as learning more about the missions of St. Paul, or something as deep as meeting God. With a theme, a Bible, and a focused itinerary a person will usually enjoy a tour that changes their life in some exciting ways.
Traveling in the Middle East, which is where most of the great biblical and church sites are, can be a challenge for Christians. For the majority populations are Jewish in Israel and Muslim everywhere else. So some cross-cultural sensitivities are always helpful. For example, my guides in Israel were a Zionist Jew, an Arab Muslim, and an Arab Christian. And they all had opinions! But I enjoyed absorbing everything they said, because for me that’s one of the best things about traveling abroad. Getting to know people in their own cultures, which are dramatically different from mine in a 100 different ways, makes me a better person in my heart, and mind, and spirit. And that’s a good thing. May you enjoy the same kind of enrichment in your pilgrimage.