Pilgrimage. An idiosyncratic word, a word from a different place and a different time.
And yet, that is what it felt like I was doing, a pilgrimage.
I received an invitation to journey with a few faith leaders to Jordan to visit Bethany Beyond the Jordan—the historic site where the baptism of Jesus took place. It was my first time in the geographic area where my Christian faith was formed. And I was excited to see places I had only read about, studied, but never seen.
Christian holy sites can be found in many countries, but I was specifically visiting the country of Jordan. The Hashemites are the Royal Family of Jordan and part of their sacred responsibility is to serve as the keeper of various holy sites that are important to several faiths. As descendants of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, the Hashemite court is the guardian of several holy sites outside Jordan as well.
And so, we set off from our hotel on the shores of the Dead Sea, into a bus that took us into an area that the Bible describes as the “wilderness.” And we were welcomed into that place. A visit to an archeological site. A lecture about the history of the place. Some tea and a walking tour. Churches, churches, and churches from several different Christian traditions (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, etc.) sprouted along the ridge, marking the ancient shores of a river that had moved one hundred yards away. Though the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic faiths have some overlap, the site of the baptism of Jesus felt uniquely Christian. And the posture of welcome, of respect, and of inclusive hospitality on behalf of those from the Muslim and Orthodox Christian communities was so striking to me. I was grateful for the vision, the practice, and the welcome that came from this generous posture.
It’s an important moment in the Christian faith, the moment where Jesus comes to the Jordan River and is baptized by John the Baptist. Some say it’s where the faith was born. The submerging under the waters of the Jordan, the profession of faith publicly was an event that marked the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It is a practice that is repeated to this day. It marks a sacred moment in many Christian people’s lives – it marks a public expression of their faith. And to be baptized in the same place as Jesus, holds special significance.
But it was so profound for me. As a person, who by temperament is a thinking person, I can live in my head a lot. This pilgrimage journey was one that has brought me to a place, to observe and see with my eyes, to hear the wind moving through the reeds, to hear the sounds like the wilderness.
The walking brought me to a PLACE, into a practice of my faith connected to the PRESENT. But it was the hospitality that brought me to PEOPLE. I was drawn to the director of the site—a deeply religious man from an Orthodox Christian tradition whose passion for his work and also for his faith intertwined without hesitation. I was drawn in by those from the Islamic tradition, who were familiar with the culture, who taught me a bit of Arabic, and translated the inscriptions in the Christian churches. I was drawn in by the reflections of people of different faiths, reflecting back to me what they saw in my faith, that helped me see my Christian with new perspective. And I was touched, by those of no particular faith tradition, who watched how I interacted with the Jordan River (I had to touch the waters!), and then copied the same motions, seeing if the magic was available for all people. I hope it was.
This journey felt like more than an educational trip or a vacation to an interesting location. There was a question that my soul was asking, beneath my consciousness, beneath my knowing. It was a question that only emerged in the quiet and the space that the pilgrimage journey created. The question that my soul asked was, “God, what do you want me to be AWAKE to? What do you want me to notice?”
The fatigue of the pandemic, the trauma of the racial reckoning, in the challenges of pursuing change, I found myself asking, “What is true, what is good, what is important what is worthy?” The abrupt stop to life, imposed by the pandemic, cleared away some of the busyness that masked the feelings. Why do I do this? Why are we …?
And I didn’t realize it, but it took the wide expanse of the “wilderness” at the Bethany site, for those timid but essential questions to find space to creep out.
In this pilgrimage journey, in running the water of the Jordan through my fingers, in gazing upon the stones and the springs, in walking with intention, with wakefulness, did I find my soul’s longing. I want to be and become one who is awake, who notices the movement of God in the everyday places, in the ordinary life. In that moment of journeying, of pilgrimage, in being in that ancient land, I found the ways that history, the old, the ancient reached out to touch and animate the day-to-day reality.
As I’ve returned home, to a neighborhood that is less ancient, to a place where archeological excavations are replaced by construction cones and detours, I’ve tried to bring this same walking spirituality to the day-to-day life. Whether it’s walking in the neighborhood, or walking from parking lot, I occasionally try to stop and notice, to enter into a familiar place with the curiosity of a first-time visitor. To search for the story of God unfolding in a place, in a way that the sacred breaks into the everyday. To see the reflection of God’s hand, God’s presence.
To notice and capture the delight of God in the laughter of my daughter. To see the heart of God, a glimpse in the everyday sorrow. This is the pilgrimage journey, the spiritual walking, of everyday life.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto is the Executive Director of Christians for Social Action.