Twenty years ago this summer, Holy Communion sent its first group of teens on a pilgrimage, setting up a tradition of investing in young people in ways that change them, inside out.
The church has sponsored eleven trips for youth, including the 2019 pilgrimage to Ireland in June. It’s hard to name a single other church program that affects them as much, both for what the youth take home to grow in their hearts and in the empowerment from the community, which stands united to help them raise money.
The first trip was to Scotland, including the island of Iona, a well-known spiritual retreat for pilgrims around the globe. Other groups have hiked the Camino de Santiago in Spain, explored the ancient ruins of Corinth, stood in the looming horror of Buchenwald Concentration Camp, visited Canterbury Cathedral and found solace in places like Luxembourg, Portugal and Greece.
Lee Campbell Sandberg was a pilgrim on the first trip, led by youth minister John Leach.
“I still have pictures up in my home,” she said.
“That trip absolutely changed my life. I was going through a tough time, changing high schools because my parents decided I needed a change. John Leach helped me through it. He was there every step of the way for me. … He was very important to me,” said Sandberg, now a wife and mother and forever “grounded to the church,” she said.
For the first time in her life, she felt like she had the tools to be still and find peace.
“We didn’t wear watches the whole time. We were on God’s time. John would say, ‘Go off for two hours or what you think is two hours,” she said, laughing. “Then we would journal.
“We appreciated everything more, every detail,” Sandberg says, which is one of the graces of the trip that has followed her into adulthood.
Leach, now rector of Holy Apostles Episcopal Church in Collierville, was part of the team that put together the pilgrimage process at Holy Communion, including the pay structure and hours of service youth must contribute to be eligible.
“The youth had to have a certain level of participation. It was not unforgiving, but it was demanding,” he said. “They made that commitment. There is something to be said for the parents making that commitment too. The program would not have worked without that first class’s group of parents. They and the youth set up the model for how to live this out. They bought into it. That was huge.”
Without the commitment, younger siblings would not have followed suit, he said. That continuity in participation was critical in creating the pilgrimage culture at Holy Communion.
It is the only Episcopal church in the Diocese of West Tennessee with a youth pilgrimage.
The issues are complex, Leach said. Without the culture, it’s difficult to get youth to sacrifice the time from school and sports to participate.
“Also, our kids at Holy Apostles, by the time they are 15, have often been to four different counties and have traveled all over. It’s a challenge to get them to think this is not a vacation,” Leach said.
And then there’s the issue of money.
The current group from Holy Communion includes 13 pilgrims and four adults. The trip will cost roughly $3,600 per pilgrim. Each is expected to pay $1,200 plus raise another $1,200. The church pays the final third for each youth.
“The pilgrimage is the crown jewel of Holy Communion’s youth program,” Sandy said. “It offers our youth the opportunity to encounter God in a new way by taking away their familiar surroundings – home, church and youth group.”
The money is budgeted over three years for each trip because the Vestry is of one mind that “Holy Communion invests its resources where they will have the most impact,” he said. “The pilgrimage has an immeasurable impact on the youth who participate and on the adults that accompany them.”
To keep the budget stable, the church spreads the cost over three years.
The Reverend John Burruss, who led four pilgrimages while he was youth minister at Holy Communion, says the spiritual grounding of a pilgrimage adds immeasurably to a youth program and a congregation. He and his vestry at St. Stephen’s in Birmingham, where he is now rector, have been having “the pilgrimage conversation” nearly since he arrived last winter, hoping to add it to their youth program.
“I remember reflecting at the time and later that it was not about seeing sights, but overcoming something that we thought was impossible. It was the community’s role in our faith journey, not really what we had to learn but the community making this journey together,” he said.
Hiking is often part of it, he said. So is the realization that the group exists to minister to each other.
“You stop trying to be a tourist. The desire is to be more intentional in your practices, in the movement from a tourist to a traveler. If you are a faithful person, that being a traveler connects you to your spiritual journey,” Burruss said.
“It’s like reading the Bible outdoors, where most of the Bible stories actually happened. You imagine yourself in that story. In the same way, a pilgrimage helps you see your life as sacred. By getting out of our shell or bubble and becoming uncomfortable, we actually become more grounded in faith and our understanding of self.”
Based on the number of service hours, including attendance in church, he knows of no pilgrim would could have confused the time away as vacation.
The pilgrims are expected to complete 225 service hours, 125 of them before they leave. The rules also say that only 25 hours per semester may be fulfilled outside the church.
“It is a lot of hours,” said Becket Monaghan, a 2016 pilgrim. “But it was not grueling. It was work that helped us to get know each other. While it was a sacrifice of time, we had a lot of fun doing it. We got to make projects and sell cakes and talk to people, make connections and learn.”
The part of here pilgrimage that lives on for her is her confidence that she can find common ground with all kinds of people.
“I got to bond with all the people, including the leaders and adults,” she said. “They did a good job of making sure everyone got to connect. We had a different roommate every night and were in different groups each day.”
Becket, who had not been out of the United States before the pilgrimage, is happy that her first trip was to see places in Scotland that are historical for the Episcopal Church and Christianity in general.
The pilgrimage the church is preparing for now is special to her because her brother, John, is going,
“I get to see close up, how it all affects him. It will be touching to see the whole group going off from the airport,” she said.
Minster to Youth Carter Webster is tabulating service hours now and helping build community in the 2019 group.
“I look forward to continuing this tradition and using the collective knowledge of generations of pilgrims to build the spiritual components,” she said.
Kneeland Gammill, a sophomore at the University of Mississippi, was a pilgrim in 2014 to Germany, which means he saw the Buchenwald Concentration Camp and an enormous factory where the Germans produced much of the metal used in their World War II-era weapons.
“I think I had seen a lot already in life, but I had not really truly experienced a place,” he said, searching for the words. “To understand the significance, the unimaginable impact a single place can have on history, on the world, is staggering. I was so taken aback. Seeing Buchenwald made me sick to my stomach.
“We climbed all the way to the very top of the metal factory, walking up and up and up, and thinking about all the bad a single place like that produced,” he said. “How much that came out of the factory cost someone else their life?”
Seeing so much with people he loved, he said, “planted a seed of exploration in me. It’s absolutely priceless that Holy Communion offers high-schoolers the opportunity to the leave the country without their parents. All the blood, sweat and tears that go into making the pilgrimage possible are a fraction of its worth.”
Matthew Arehart led three trips as youth minister and attended one as a teen.
He remembers them all but particularly the trip to Spain in 2012. There had been turnover in the church youth staff and for a variety of reasons, the pilgrims hadn’t bonded as much before they left.
“There were cliques going into it,” Matthew said. “The youth had spent time together but that intentional time of building community took place on the trip and continued afterward.
“That group came back and started the beginning of what the Wednesday night youth discussion is now. They were used to asking questions and they came to church with their own questions. We had a lot of deep conversations on that trip.”
David and Kendall Visinsky chaperoned in 2016 and will go again in June, one of the great joys of their lives.
“The reality is, Matthew Arehart and Ollie Rencher asked Kendall and me to teach Sunday school seven years ago,” David said. “I didn’t think I had the ability to do so and really didn’t think I would get a lot out of it. The reality is, I have gotten everything out of it. The projects and work hours before the pilgrimage give kids the tools to have their own spiritual and personal development so when they go on the pilgrimage, they can seek and find the answers to the questions they are struggling with.
“I would say that whether it’s through conversation with youth ministers or clergy or chaperones or with their small groups, the pilgrimage is giving them a framework for life’s eternal questions. We all have experiences in the wilderness; it’s how we react to them,” he said.
Leach, perhaps because he is a rector in this diocese, has had the pleasure of marrying pilgrims from Holy Communion and baptizing several of their children.
“When we got out of Memphis, we were the community of the faithful. All the other securities and boundaries and barriers to relationships were removed, including whose parents were in whose parents’ peer group, where they went to school, who was most popular and even who had more money than someone else. We were all equal and did the same things all the time.”
Very few experiences in life can be distilled to produce the outcome and as efficiently as the pilgrimage does, he said.
“I see a lot of development in the youth who participate, not only on the pilgrimage but leading up to it and afterward. They have a wonderful group of pilgrims that will always have this shared experience. They can lean on each other and be there for each other through good and bad.”