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Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist News Service

The Rev. Paul Jeffrey has traveled the world in his role as a missionary photojournalist. Here he visits with General Board of Global Ministries editor Christie House during the 2012 General Conference.

Oh, the places you ought to go

 

By Erik Alsgaard
July-August 2017

Travel with a purpose

Perhaps the most famous quote about travel is from American author Mark Twain who wrote, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." (Innocents Abroad, 1869)

For stretching one's horizons and perhaps enabling one truly to appreciate the blessings of home, travel is hard to beat. But, how can you "travel with a purpose?" How is it possible to experience the wonderful diversity of God's creation, in places and people, through travel?

The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a photojournalist missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries. His assignments have taken him to the far corners of the world. Recently he journeyed to South Sudan, where he photographed refugees as they lived, simply making it through one more day.

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For Jeffrey, travel can be purposeful by getting away from monuments and buildings and focusing on people.

"If you're a photographer, for example, think of the images you've already seen of the place you're going to visit," he said. "Then commit yourself not to capture the same images. Instead, put your focus on the people who live and work there. Challenge the dominant narratives that define people into two-dimensional travelogue illustrations and recognize their complexity."

‘Get lost on purpose.'

To experience more diversity while travelling, Jeffrey offers four words: "Get lost on purpose." Go away by yourself, and rely on local folks to tell you where you are. "Put yourself in a situation where you have to accept hospitality from strangers. Seek surprise," he said.

Not everyone is comfortable or able to "get lost on purpose," but they still can experience travel with a purpose, said Mark Boston, director of specialty tours at Educational Opportunities. EO serves about 15,000 people annually with the Holy Land their number one travel destination.

"We want people to grow spirituality on one of our tours," said Boston. "We take our trips a step beyond a normal vacation and allow you the opportunities to have those touchstones in faith."

For Boston, the trips deepen his understanding of his faith. He recently went on an EO trip following in the footsteps of Paul. "When you travel on a bus for two hours and then you realize, ‘Paul walked that,' it gives you a tremendous appreciation for his determination to spread the word as far as he could," Boston said.

Millennials approach travel with new and different needs, Boston said. They want to do more than go to the Holy Land, see the sites and read Scripture. They want to interact with the people. A trip planned for 2018 will include several times of intentional discussion and learning about some of the issues facing the area. Scheduled is a stop in Jericho for "dinner and a lecture on the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and the impact of international diplomacy."

Interact safely

"Even in other countries and places that we go," he continued, "I'm finding that when we interact with the local people, the better understanding we have. (This is reflected) in our prayers and in our giving and in our desire to send out people to help other people. We will look at this so much differently than before."

Safety is critically important when travelling, Boston said. EO, which mostly provides group travel experiences via buses or boats, stresses safety as its number one priority.

EO guides and drivers, Boston said, not only know their history and their routes, they know each other. The idea is to envelope travelers in a team of professionals who know how to keep the group safe while also providing spiritual experiences that can change lives.

"I don't go anywhere by myself where I don't feel that people are watching over me," Boston said. "When our people who travel with EO say they want to go out in the evening, my caveat is ‘go out with people.' If you go out as a group, you're much less likely to have anybody address you or accost you."

Boston said potential criminals are looking for people who look lost. Wherever he goes – even if he gets lost "on purpose" – he tries to walk/act/look like he knows what he's doing and where he's going.

Seek the different

Years ago, someone gave the Rev. Charles Harrell, a retired member of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, a copy of the book 1,000 Places to See before You Die. After reading it cover-to-cover, he built his own list and has been working on it ever since.

"A lot about finding diversity in your life ... is about seeking out what you know is different," he said, "and listening to what other people are seeing, doing and experiencing that is not your norm."

He echoes Jeffrey's tip: Be willing to leave behind a bit of comfort, get up early and stay up late. "Risk getting lost and getting indigestion," he said.

Travel creates opportunity to experience something different. Harrell told of experiencing two of the best ice creams in his life in (what was then) Yugoslavia. Both were banana-flavored (his favorite), but they were different in their excellence.

"They both caught the deep, essential nature of banana flavor, but it was like they captured different characters of ‘banana-ness,' or ‘banan-itude,'" he said. "The human family is like that: we do many of the same things, but if we really look and experience, we find an incredible variety of ways of being that can enhance our appreciation of the whole and each part."

Harrell said travel should be more than just entertainment.

"As a Christian and particularly as clergy, I believe that my travel, even for leisure, should contribute in some way to the mission of life and what I'm called to. That means being thoughtful, even about rest."

That means asking questions about who benefits because of your travel, Harrell said, and who it hurts or harms.

Harrell's tips for purposeful travel:

  • Pray – Start each day with a time of centering prayer.
  • Get off the beaten path – "They say that being out on a limb is good, because the fruit is there," Harrell said. Look for the out-of-the-way places that the tourist herds don't visit; some of your most memorable experiences are likely to happen there.
  • Keep a journal – It forces you to "really think about what you've seen."
  • Be a good visitor – Remember, you're a guest; try to be a low-maintenance, high-appreciation guest.
  • Be attentive to nuance – What looks like the same situation may in fact not be at all.
  • Try to give back – Ask: How can I bless this place? These people? How can I express my gratitude to God for being here?
  • Let yourself be changed, even transformed – Give yourself to the experience, Harrell said. "Let each horizon you gaze upon beckon you onward to another, new one."

If travel is all about the experience, then it is almost certain that something out of the ordinary is going to happen.

"I've had survivors of a massacre ask me to pray over the bones of the dead," said Jeffrey, "while I was painfully aware that it was my government that sponsored the killing." He's been anointed by a displaced Iraqi child, spent 10 minutes in a small room with Pat Robertson, had Yasar Arafat insist that, in addition to taking photos of him with others, they pose for a selfie, and handed his baby to Daniel Ortega for a photo op. "He held her at arm's length because she had a stinky diaper on," Jeffrey laughed.

The Rev. Erik Alsgaard is editor of Connection, the newspaper of the Baltimore-Washington Conference.